Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

France won the World Cup yesterday. And if you were to just look at the final score (4-2), you would think that the French finally put together the attacking display that was reasonable to expect coming into the tournament given their attacking talent. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that it was far from an offensive showcase from Les Bleus. They took just seven total shots and just one — a tight angle shot by Kylian Mbappe after some individual brilliance — from inside the box. Their first goal came from an own goal off a free kick that was won by Antoine Griezmann for a, to be diplomatic, soft foul (the more likely explanation is that Griezmann dived, and not for the first time in the World Cup either). The second came from a penalty kick after a handball that was initially not called but then — I think rightfully — called a foul after video review. I’ll defend the referee for his decision on this one, but I think we can all agree that it was a controversial call and that the French didn’t do anything particularly special to win the penalty. And the third and fourth goals came from shots from distance from two of France’s greatest stars, Paul Pogba and Mbappe. According to Michael Caley’s calculation of xG (short for expected goals), which measures expected goals based solely on shots (and thus ignores the penalty and the own goal), France should have scored just 0.3 goals based on the quality of their chances. The French scored four goals without having a single great chance.

Yesterday isn’t the first time that France has had this problem. It’s actually plagued them since before the World Cup. They scored just 18 goals in 10 qualifying matches, which was third most in their six team group (behind both Sweden and the Netherlands). In their friendly directly leading up to the World Cup, they slogged through a 1-1 tie with the United States. They then struggled to win an easy Group C. First came a 2-1 win over Australia in which their two goals were a controversial penalty and an own goal which came thanks to a great individual effort by Paul Pogba. Then came a 1-0 win over Peru, another relatively dreary game with a Mbappe goal ending up being the winner. They knew they needed just a point against Denmark in their final group stage game and thus went out and played the only scoreless game of the tournament (xG for that game: 0.3). They seemingly broke through offensively with a 4-3 win over Argentina, but again, it’s worth examining the goals. The first came after an incredible run by Mbappe was stopped with a foul in the box, leading to a Griezmann penalty. The second came on an unbelievable shot from outside the box by fullback Benjamin Pavard. And the third and fourth were both more a testament to Mbappe’s individual excellence than an overall successful offensive build-up. Then came the 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarterfinals, another of the worst games of the tournament. One goal came from a gaffe from Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera on a Griezmann shot from far beyond the box. The other came from a Rafael Varane header off a free kick that came from near the edge of the box and probably should have been stopped by someone. And the semifinal against Belgium, which was supposed to be a free-flowing game between two exciting teams, ended 1-0 to France, although to be fair they had enough chances to score another goal or two. For those of you keeping track at home, France scored 14 total goals in seven World Cup games. Three of those were penalties, two more were own goals, and another was a complete flub by an opposing goalie. Three goals came on shots from outside the box, due solely to individual brilliance. That leaves just five goals that I would classify as neither lucky nor purely the result of a single player making a great play: Mbappe’s goal against Peru, both of his goals against Argentina, and the headers by Varane and Samuel Umtiti against Uruguay and Belgium respectively.

This may still seem surprising, especially after a four goal performance against Croatia, but the fact is that France won because of their defense. They’re very strong defensively, especially through the middle, with Barcelona’s Umtiti and Real Madrid’s Varane at centerback and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante patrolling midfield. They shut down Belgium’s explosive attack. They gave up three goals to Argentina, but one of those was an unstoppable shot by Angel Di Maria and another came in the dying moments of a 4-2 game. And they gave up just one goal in the group stage, and that was on an Australia penalty. Shutouts against Belgium, Uruguay, Peru, and Denmark. One goal allowed to Australia — on a penalty. Three allowed to Argentina and two to Croatia, including one off a Hugo Lloris goalkeeping error that was as egregious as Muslera’s. That’s a pretty good defensive performance.

I understand that France’s style, their refusal to send an extra player forward on an attack, was by design. Coach Didier Deschamps wanted his France team to play conservatively and to pick its spots, and it did so. It obviously worked out in this tournament. But there’s a part of me that agrees with Belgium’s critique that France “played like Panama.” That’s partially because I want to see more exciting games but also because I really do believe that a team with France’s personnel should be able to do better than play for 1-0 win after 1-0 win. Heck, this is a team with enough offensive talent to leave players like Anthony Martial, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman, and Adrien Rabiot out of the World Cup squad. It’s a team with the best young attacker in the world (Mbappe) and one of the most productive strikers (Griezmann). France oozes with talent on the wings — Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Florian Thauvin — or would if any of those players had gotten off the bench for more than short cameos. They have arguably the best central midfielder in the world from an attacking standpoint (Pogba). Even their right back, Pavard, has the quality to score goals like the one against Argentina. I just would have liked to see a little more ambition from the team with the most talent in the world.

The main takeaway from this World Cup has seemed to be that France is set to be a dynasty. And look, I get it. Not only do they have the most talented team in the world, but they had the second youngest team in the World Cup (only Nigeria was younger). Mbappe is 19, Dembele and Lemar are 21 and 22, Pavard is 22, Umtiti and Varane are 24 and 25, Pogba is 25. Bayern’s Corentin Tolisso, whom I haven’t even mentioned yet in this post, is 23. And just three regular players are older than 27: goalie Hugo Lloris, midfielder Blaise Matuidi, and striker Olivier Giroud. So yes, I get the dynasty talk. But based on the way they played in this World Cup, I don’t see a period of dominance coming. They have all the talent in the world, but this doesn’t yet remind me of the Spanish team that ruled the world from 2008-2012. Dear France: show me more ambition and more goals in Euro 2020.


My Full World Cup Group Stage Picks

Posted: 06/13/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

I’ve picked Brazil to win the World Cup, but I also want to make full group stage predictions before the games kick off tomorrow. Luckily, there’s a pretty obvious place for me to start these…

Group A:

Uruguay     9
Russia     4
Egypt     2
Saudi Arabia     1

Uruguay is by far the strongest team in this group and really should collect the maximum nine points. The nucleus of the team — strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani along with centerback Diego Godin — is familiar, but new talents like midfielder Lucas Torrerira give Uruguay new strength. With a +12 goal differential in qualifying, Uruguay was the second best team in South America. I’m picking Russia to finish second because they’re a well organized team with enough talent to get past Saudi Arabia and tie Egypt. I’d consider picking Egypt second if I were convinced that Mo Salah was healthy, but even with a healthy Salah I’m concerned that the Egyptians don’t have enough oomph to get out of the group. And Saudi Arabia is probably the worst team in the group. They’ll be lucky to get the point I’m awarding them.

Group B:

Spain     7
Morocco     5
Portugal     4
Iran     0

It’ll be interesting to see whether the dramatic replacement of Julen Lopetegui, who was ousted after the news came out that he was set to end his Spain contract to join Real Madrid, has any impact. I don’t think it’ll keep Spain from finishing first in a pretty straightforward group. Portugal is probably the second strongest team in the group, and I know they won Euro 2016 and have Cristiano Ronaldo, but they’re an older team with old and mistake-prone centerbacks (cough cough Pepe cough cough). Morocco, meanwhile, is full of exciting young talent, with world class creator Hakim Ziyech of Ajax (although not for long, I figure), 20-year-old Amine Harit of Schalke, and Sofyan Amrabat. They also have excellent centerback Mehdi Benatia of Juventus, who’s their captain. Portugal’s better, but I have a hunch that Morocco will be one of two African teams to get through. Iran actually cruised through Asian qualifying (6-4-0 with only two goals allowed), but I expect them to struggle with the opposing talent in this group.

Group C:

France     7
Denmark     4
Peru     4
Australia     1

France should probably win all three games, but they aren’t the best at breaking down organized defenses and the rest of their group will certainly defend in numbers. I think Peru-Denmark is a toss-up, but I just can’t trust a team that’s as reliant on a single player as Denmark is on Christian Eriksen. I still think Denmark will get out of the group, but only on goal difference. Australia has outperformed expectations at some previous World Cups, but this isn’t one of their better teams and I’d be surprised if they win a game.

Group D:

Croatia     6
Argentina     4
Nigeria     4
Iceland     2

Along with Group H, this is the toughest to call from top to bottom. Iceland is a great story and a good team, one I might pick to get out of a different group. But they happen to be in the same group as two teams I’m high on — Croatia and Nigeria — along with Messi’s Argentina. As I’ve said before, I think there’s a real chance that Croatia and Nigeria or Iceland will qualify at the expense of Argentina, but I’ll stick with this prediction in what’s sure to be a tightly contested group. Croatia’s underperformed in the past, but they’re too technically strong to disappoint again, right?

Group E:

Brazil     9
Serbia     4
Costa Rica     3
Switzerland     1

I’m probably wrong to overlook Switzerland, but they’re just such a boring team that I can’t bring myself to pick them to move on. Costa Rica stunningly topped a group that included Italy, Uruguay, and England in 2014 before winning a knockout stage game and losing in the quarterfinals, and I think there’s a chance they can sneak through in second this time around before losing to Germany. Instead, I’m going to pick Serbia to finish second, because they’re very strong in the middle of the field. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a star and is set to move to a top team after the World Cup. Nemanja Matic is a big, bruising force in the middle, and he’s not alone: Croatia is the biggest team in the World Cup.

Group F:

Germany     9
Mexico     4
Sweden     4
South Korea     0

I expect Germany to cruise, but who knows? Mexico and Sweden are both good teams who can cause anyone problems on their days. Sweden has excelled in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era, playing with more discipline and cohesiveness and remaining strong and compact defensively. And Mexico always gets out of their groups and has an attack spruced up by Hirving Lozano, one of the top young players in the tournament, and crowd favorite Chicharito, who has 49 goals in 102 career games for Mexico. It’s an experienced team, and I trust them to advance. South Korea is one of the less inspiring teams in the field, although they do have Tottenham star Son Heung-min. They struggled in Asian qualifying, finishing second behind Iran in their group and going just 4-3-3 with a +1 goal differential against Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China, and Qatar.

Group G:

Belgium     7
England     7
Tunisia     3
Panama     0

This is the easiest group to predict. I’d be very surprised if either Belgium or England failed to advance, and I think Belgium’s stronger attack will be enough to push the Red Devils over England on goal difference. Panama and Tunisia are probably both among the five worst teams at the World Cup (Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Australia are the others).

Group H:

Poland     6
Senegal     6
Colombia     3
Japan     3

This is the group I’m most excited for. I think all four teams have a chance to not just advance but top the group. There are going to be a lot of goals in this group. Poland has Robert Lewandowski, probably the best pure striker in the world, and a pair of young Napoli attackers (Piotr Zielinski and Arkadiusz Milik) who add plenty of support. They scored the fifth most goals in European qualifying, behind four teams — Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Germany — who dominated their groups. They also gave up the most goals of any European qualifier. And all three of their competitors have plenty of attacking talent. Japan’s probably the worst team in the group, but I think they’re getting overlooked a little bit. In Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, Japan has three high-profile attacking players who have proven themselves at high levels of club competition. They’re also all in their primes, along with centerback mainstay Maya Yoshida and star Marseille fullback Hiroki Sakai. They do have some defensive issues, and those will probably be exploited at the World Cup. I wrote that Colombia, the group’s favorite, may miss the knockout stage, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. They have a good team but little scoring punch outside of James and Falcao. As for Senegal, they’re a risky bet because they have just four players older than 28 and because I’m unsure how exactly they will line up. But they have star winger Sadio Mane of Liverpool on one side and Monaco’s Keita Balde on the other. Napoli centerback Kalidou Koulibaly and Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye provide strength and structure in the middle of the field. They’re going to score goals. I’m sure they’ll also be exposed some defensively, but I want them to qualify and think they have the talent to do so, so second place it is for Senegal.

Why Brazil Will Win the World Cup

Posted: 06/13/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

According to the betting markets, there is a clear group of six World Cup favorites: Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, and Belgium. All six are 11:1 shots to win or better. There are then five more teams with better than 60:1 (~2 percent) chances to win, including England, Portugal, Uruguay, Croatia, and Colombia. I think it’s likely that one or two of those teams will make deep runs into the tournament, but I’d be very surprised if any of them — or anyone with longer odds — win the whole tournament. That leaves the top six. To me, the favorites are favorites for one of two reasons: 1) they have a ridiculous amount of talent; 2) they have a proven gameplan that works, and they know how to maximize their (still great, but not quite as terrifying) talent. I’d put France, Belgium, and Argentina in the first group. I think France has more talent than anyone. Their starting lineup — and even their bench — is full of players who star for the best club teams in the world. But they don’t really have a defined identity, starting 11, or way they want to play. Do they opt for speed and start Antoine Griezmann up top with Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele on either side? Or do they go with the same front three they started in their last pre-tournament game, with the (in relative terms, anyway) plodding Olivier Giroud next to Mbappe up top and world class striker Griezmann playing as an attacking midfielder? Will they start two in central midfield or three? Can they get the best out of Paul Pogba, an extraordinary talent who hasn’t impressed at Manchester United? It’s a young team, but it’s one that has had recent success — France nearly won (and probably should have won) Euro 2016. I think we have a pretty good idea who will start for Belgium, but I have some of the same concerns with the Red Devils. Will they opt for the possession and precision passing style that made Manchester City so dominant this season with Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne as their heartbeat? Or will they sit back and try to score on the counter? What of the reported argument between De Bruyne and coach Roberto Martinez? Is Martinez good enough to lead a team to the World Cup? Like France, Belgium is chock-full of talent. De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mertens are all exceptional attack-minded players who are squarely in their primes, while the centerback trio of Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, and Jan Vertonghen are all proven stars for their English club teams. This is truly Belgium’s golden generation, which is why they’re one of the favorites to win and why they’re ranked third in the world by FIFA’s admittedly faulty ranking system. But like France, they’ll have to settle some tactical issues. As for Argentina, I wrote that they could be knocked out of their group, and I don’t consider them to be on the same level as these other teams. But they’re one of the favorites for a reason: they have Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, and a whole lot of other attacking talent.

Germany and Spain, meanwhile, are very talented teams, but neither one has the glitzy attacking talent of France, Belgium, or Argentina. But Spain and Germany especially both have systems that have led them to glory before. Spain’s team is very different from the one that won the World Cup in 2010, but their style is very much the same. They pass and pass and pass until inevitably they find a hole, and then they attack. They’ve gone 20 straight games without a loss, and I don’t expect the style to change much even after their bizarre sudden coaching change. Germany, meanwhile, is very mentally sound both without the ball and with it. They aren’t prone of off-ball errors — say, losing focus for a moment and failing to prevent a quick through-ball — and they don’t turn the ball over much. That all starts with Toni Kroos, the central midfielder who I’d consider to be their heartbeat. Like Spain, they don’t have a big-name striker (Timo Werner, likely their starting striker, is 22-years-old and plays for RB Leipzig). Like Spain, it doesn’t really matter. They won the World Cup in 2014 with most of their scoring — including the dramatic winning goal in the Final — coming from their midfield. By the way, the guy who scored that goal, Mario Gotze, is one of a few high-profile players who was left out of Germany’s World Cup squad. That’s because Germany doesn’t care about names. They just want to be absolutely certain that each of their 23 players plays a role they’re comfortable playing and that they have the right players for every type of game. It’s no coincidence that Spain and Germany are the last two World Cup winners.

The one team I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Brazil. That’s because I think Brazil is the lone team that is both uber-talented and well organized, which is why I consider them to be the favorites. First of all, almost every player on the team is in his prime. The only Brazil player younger than 24 or older than 33 is Gabriel Jesus, who at 21 is an established striker at Manchester City and scored seven goals with five assists in 10 World Cup qualifying games. Jesus, of course, isn’t Brazil’s only top-level talent. Neymar is the team’s star and probably the future best player in the world. Neymar is one of the trickiest dribblers and best playmakers in the world, and he’s likely to score some goals. Unlike in 2014, though, when Brazil was infamously drubbed 7-1 by Germany with Neymar injured, they have other attacking threats this time around. Philippe Coutinho is a dangerous passer and shooter from distance, Willian has great dribbling ability, and Brazil also has depth. Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino, both star players at club level, will likely come off the bench to provide scoring punch when needed. In central midfield, Brazil will likely start Barcelona’s Paulinho, Real Madrid’s Casemiro, and maybe Manchester City’s Fernandinho in place of Willian or Coutinho against stronger attacks. Marcelo is for my money the best left back in the world, especially offensively. At centerback, Brazil can pick from two excellent PSG players — the experienced Thiago Silva and the younger Marquinhos — and Inter Milan’s Miranda, who provides stability. And while the injury to normal right back Dani Alves is a blow, Danilo is a capable replacement and a guy who played regularly for Manchester City. There’s not as much defensive depth as there is up top, but the defense is hardly a weakness. Alisson completes the team and is a good goalie who excelled at Roma this season. In addition to its depth, Brazil plays cohesively under its manager, Tite. They scored 41 goals and conceded just 11 in 18 qualifying games, dominating the rest of South America en route to a 12-5-1 record (their one loss came at Chile, who didn’t even make the World Cup). They’re known for playing in devastating triangles, taking advantage of the attacking ability of their fullbacks and the mobility of their front three or four. They’re also both more experienced and more confident than they were in 2014, when they were a young team playing under immense pressure at home. The pressure will still be there; it is Brazil, after all. But this team is cohesive, talented, and confident. They’re my pick to take home the World Cup.

The World Cup starts on Thursday with Russia-Saudi Arabia. Nothing signals the start of the biggest sporting event in the world like a game between FIFA’s 67th (Saudi Arabia) and 70th (Russia) ranked teams, right? Of course, Russia may not have qualified for the tournament period had they not received automatic qualification as the host nation. Instead, not only did they qualify without going through the rigorous European qualification campaign that felled the likes of Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria, but they also were designated as a Pot 1 team alongside FIFA’s top seven teams (Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, and France). Remember, this is largely the same Russia team as the one that earned just one point in EURO 2016, drawing England before losing to Slovakia and getting thrashed by Wales (neither of whom qualified for the World Cup, by the way). The result is that Group A is one of the easiest groups in World Cup history. Saudi Arabia and Russia, by ranking the two worst teams in the tournament, are joined by Uruguay and Egypt. It’s a dream group for Uruguay, a talented team featuring star strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (the leading scorer in CONMEBOL qualifying with 10 goals, three more than anyone else) and a solid structure that led them to a strong second place showing in South American qualifying (behind just Brazil). I think Uruguay could finish second behind either Egypt or Russia, but it’s hard for me to imagine them finishing third or fourth and missing out on the knockout stage entirely. But the result of Group A being so weak is that some of the other World Cup groups feature three or even four strong teams. Uruguay is not in much danger, but a fewer of the other group’s favorites may be. And it seems like every four years, at least one tournament favorite gets knocked out early. In 2014, that team was Spain, which was coming off of a historic streak of wins in the 2008 Euro Championship, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2012 Euro Championship. In 2010, both France and Italy failed to make it out of their groups. Here are the two favorites who could realistically fail to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2018:

Argentina: This Argentina team really confuses me. On the one hand, they have a lot of top-end talent. Lionel Messi is the top-endest of top-end talents, for my money the best player of all-time. But he’s shockingly never won a tournament (World Cup or otherwise) for Argentina, and this may well be his last chance given that he’s already gone into and out of international retirement. Messi will likely have free rein to create for Argentina, and he’s joined by plenty of attacking talent. Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in the world, and while he’s always an injury risk, it seems like he’s getting healthy at the right time. Gonzalo Higuain is also a striker with great pedigree, although he’s had a troubled international career. Throw in Juventus’s Paulo Dybala, PSG’s Angel Di Maria, and Boca Juniors’s up-and-coming Cristian Pavon and it’s obvious that Argentina has buckets of attacking talent. And yet.. they scored just 19 goals in South American qualifying in 18 games. That was tied for the second-lowest mark in the 10-team group, ahead of only Bolivia. Brazil, meanwhile, scored 41. The offensive struggles were what necessitated a coaching change midway through the qualifying campaign. Meanwhile, Argentina’s defense was tremendous in World Cup qualifying and yet clearly has holes going into the tournament. The biggest hole is at goalkeeper. With starting keeper Sergio Romero ruled out due to a knee injury, the starting goalie will probably be Willy Caballero, a backup goalie for Chelsea on club level who struggled last season. Given that coach Jorge Sampaoli seems likely to throw a lot of men forward, especially in games against defensive teams like Iceland, Argentina could well be suspect to counter-attacks. That makes defensive duties very important, and Argentina has some question marks there. Javier Mascherano has long been Argentina’s defensive midfielder, a key to stopping nascent counter-attacks. But he’s 34-years-old now, and his move to China at club level can’t have helped his fitness. That’ll put more pressure on the defense. Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio are a solid central defensive duo, but I wouldn’t call them dominant. Depending on how Argentina decides to play — and how many of their attack-minded players they decide to shove onto the field — I could see Otamendi and/or Fazio being exposed by Nigerian, Icelandic, and Croatian counter-attacks.

Argentina isn’t a very well-rounded team, they struggled through qualifying, they’re missing their starting goalie, and they don’t have an identity. If you’re forecasting them to make a run in the tournament, you’re probably betting that Messi will carry them game after game. And if you’re betting on an individual player, there’s no better bet than Messi. That’s why, despite all the holes, I could see Argentina making the same type of run they did in 2014, when they lost to Germany in the finals. But they also have big bust potential. They were handed a tough group with no pushovers. Iceland’s the smallest nation to make a World Cup, but they’re legit. They reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 by beating England, and they qualified atop their qualification group. Second in that group was Croatia, who also happen to be in Group D. The Croats have a lot of talent and the explosiveness to hit Argentina on the break. I’m excited for the Argentina-Croatia game because it has the potential for a lot of goals. And the fourth team in the group, Nigeria, can’t be discounted either. Talent-wise, Argentina is the best team in the group, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were to fail to qualify due to their weaknesses and the overall strength of their group.

Colombia: It was easy to fall in love with Colombia in the 2014 World Cup. They had the breakout star of the tournament, James Rodriguez (then of Monaco), who secured a move to Real Madrid thanks to his tremendous performance, which included six goals (including a couple of marvelous ones). They had synchronized dances after goals. And they were good, too, winning all three group games (9-2 total score) and blanking Uruguay 2-0 before bowing out by a respectable 2-1 score to host Brazil in the quarterfinals. They did all of that without star striker Radamel Falcao, who tore his ACL before the 2014 World Cup and missed the tournament. Falcao is back this year and coming off of a tremendous year (24 goals in 36 games for Monaco). James is still the fulcrum and, at 26, is in the prime of his career. He scored eight goals and assisted on 13 more while on loan for Bayern Munich, one of the best clubs in the world. With key players like Juan Cuadrado (the speedy Juventus winger who also opened eyes in 2014) and Davinson Sanchez (a 21-year-old central defender who became a starter for Tottenham in his first season in London) also playing well coming into the tournament, the stage is set for an even deeper run in 2018… Or is it?

For all their strengths, Colombia has glaring holes. Who’ll play next to Sanchez at centerback? Is it Cristian Zapata, who’s an established option but barely played for AC Milan this year? In recent friendlies, the answer has been Yerry Mina, a 23-year-old Barcelona centerback who played just six games for Barca this season. Mina surely has talent, but will his lack of experience (combined with Sanchez’s youth) cost Colombia? I came into this thinking fullback may be another concern, but I’m backing off of that stance after doing research. Fullbacks Frank Fabra and Santiago Arias are both established options in their primes, and both were regular starters for Boca Juniors and PSV Einhdhoven respectively. But I continue to think that central midfield is an issue. Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez are 33 and 32-years-old respectively and have a lot of experience playing next to one another. But while both are rock solid (Sanchez, in fact, has earned the nickname “The Rock”), neither offer much creativity, which could be a problem given that Colombia will surely have to break down organized defenses in the World Cup. That’s why it’s no surprise that, despite the attacking punch brought from James, Cuadrado, and Falcao, Colombia scored just 21 goals in qualifying and finished a point ahead of Chile, who missed out on the tournament entirely.

One factor that could help Colombia: they’ve consistently showed the ability to edge past teams with less talent. That’s how they were able to qualify for the World Cup despite failing to win a single game (they lost four and tied two) against Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay, the three top qualifiers from South America. But while their group hasn’t gotten much attention, I think both Poland and Senegal could be real threats to Colombia. Poland is led by Robert Lewandowski, the star Bayern striker who scored 16 goals in World Cup qualifying, tops among all European players. The Poles went 8-1-1 in qualifying and remain devastating in attack, although their defense is suspect. And Senegal is brimming with talent, with Sadio Mane up front, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Badou Ndiaye in midfield, and Kalidou Koulibaly in defense. All three teams should beat up on Japan, which has four losses and one tie in their last five games and really lacks the oomph that the rest of the group has. The odds are that Colombia will advance, but they’re not that much better than either Poland or Senegal and could realistically be knocked out.

That means I rate Brazil, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, France, and Belgium as safe. Could one of those six fail to qualify? Sure. But it would probably take a complete meltdown, and I’m not going to try to guess which team may have a complete meltdown. It wouldn’t take a complete meltdown for either Argentina or Colombia to miss out. They have weaker squads (barring Uruguay) and tougher groups than the favorites in the other groups.

World Cup Final Prediction

Posted: 07/13/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

LeBron James, who’s in the news for very understandable reasons (I’ll eventually write a LeBron back to the Cavs (!) post), summed the importance of the World Cup final up very nicely. “This is the highest you can get,” James said, going on to say that the World Cup final is bigger than the NBA finals. We all know this is true, of course, but hearing the best player in basketball say it is particularly illuminating. James, of course, is in Brazil as I type and will be attending the game between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana. Must be nice.

This game has been dubbed by many as some variation of “man vs machine,” with man being Lionel Messi and Germany acting as the machine. While that has some basis in reality, I don’t think it’s even close to the reality. First, Germany. The Germans have been rightly celebrated over the past few days after a 7-1 demolition of Brazil that still seems like it was a dream. There’s no question that Germany was dominant in that game, with clinical finishing and strong defending. With that said, I’m still not sure they are a powerhouse team. The Brazilians were almost as poor as the Germans were dominant, with soft defending and very little defensive pressure. Without Neymar and Thiago Silva, their two leaders and star players, they just collapsed, and they look even worse after a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third place game. Basically, Brazil fell apart, and that wasn’t all Germany’s doing. Germany also got lucky against Brazil. There’s no question that they were and are the better team than a Neymar and Silva-less Brazil, but they aren’t six goals better. They scored seven goals on 12 shots on goal, which is unsustainable. They had just 49% possession. Brazil outshot them (13 on goal), and outpossessed them. That doesn’t mean they outplayed Germany, and they didn’t (stats can be misleading), but it’s definitely true that the game was closer than the final score indicates. Brazil had numerous chances to score early in the second half, and were unlucky not to have a couple of goals in the first few minutes of the second half. What if the final score had been 5-3 instead of 7-1? Would Germany still be considered a powerhouse team, one of the best of all-time? I doubt it.

With all that said, they are still a heck of a team. They’re organized and clinical, and it all starts at the back with goalie Manuel Neuer. Neuer has cemented his status as best goalkeeper in the world (sorry, Tim Howard) with a near-spotless tournament. His reflexes are tremendous, and he’s very steady in goal, allowing just four goals in six games. He also adds a lot to the attack, with great feet and passing ability. When the ball gets played over the top, Neuer is always there to get it. He has fantastic awareness, and when he gets the ball, he looks to start a counterattack immediately. The bottom line is that Neuer is a great asset and the best player on this team. The defense in front of Neuer isn’t fast, but it’s definitely steady. The strength of the defense is just that- strength and size. It’s going to be hard to score in the air against Germany, which means Argentina will have to beat them with speed. And then there’s the attack, which is dynamic and deep. Thomas Muller isn’t the fastest, most skilled, or best finisher in the world, but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. As a result, he has five goals in the World Cup and three more assists and is a co-Golden Boot (award given to best player in the World Cup) favorite (Messi being the other co-favorite). He’s joined by a host of other great attacking players. Mesut Ozil is the creator, Toni Kroos is the finisher, Miroslav Klose is the poacher, and tremendous attackers Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze are stuck on the bench. After their seven spot against Brazil, Germany now has scored 17 goals in the World Cup. Only one other team, the Netherlands, has scored more than 12 goals, and they’ve played an extra game. Impressive. So even after that whole paragraph about why the Germans aren’t an all-time great team, I still have to admit that they are the best team in this World Cup by a pretty wide margin.

And then there’s the so-called “one man team,” Argentina. There’s no doubt that Lionel Messi is great. He’s the best player in the world, even though he didn’t have a huge impact on the semifinal against the Dutch. He’s scored four of Argentina’s eight goals, and assisted on another one. So it’s pretty fair to say that he has been a very large part of the Argentine offense. But it’s not like this team doesn’t have other attacking options. In fact, heading into the World Cup their wealth of attacking options was their biggest strength. Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Sergio Aguero join Messi to form perhaps the most skilled attacking group in the World Cup. But it hasn’t worked out. Aguero missed two games with an injury and was clearly hobbled in the semifinal, and has yet to score a goal. He might start the final, but is without a doubt not at 100%. Di Maria scored the winning goal against Switzerland late (on a beautiful pass by Messi) but then got injured in the quarterfinal and missed the semifinal. He might not be ready to play in the final. Even with all those attacking options, Argentina’s offense has been pretty static, which explains their paltry eight goals in six games. With Messi and company, though, they are just one brilliant play away from doing something special.

Surprisingly, Argentina’s defense has carried the South American team to the final. They’ve allowed just three goals, and if you exclude a 3-2 win against Nigeria that didn’t really mean much (Argentina had already clinched progression to the last 16 and only needed a tie), that number goes down to one: a garbage time goal scored by Bosnia in the first game. That means they have not allowed a single goal in three knockout round games. Leading the defensive effort has been Javier Mascherano, who is another Golden Boot candidate and has been absolutely fantastic, especially in the semifinal, when he stopped Dutch attack after Dutch attack despite “tearing his anus.” The defense was supposed to be Argentina’s Achilles’ heel, but it’s been the opposite, saving the team time after time after time.

I expect this game to be a lot less open than Brazil-Germany. I expect a close, low-scoring game, with neither team playing dominant soccer but both playing well defensively. I really wanted to pick Argentina, because I think they are being underrated and because I think they have the speed to get behind Germany’s defense. But in the end, Neuer and the Germans are just too good. I think it’ll be close and go to extra time (hopefully), with Germany scoring the winner in that additional time and winning the game 2-1. The Golden Boot will be won by Muller if he scores a goal and by Colombia’s James Rodriguez if he doesn’t. I’m rooting for Argentina in this game, but I don’t really care. More than anything, I want a close and exciting game, and I think we’ll get it. I’m picking Germany, but it’s going to be a lot closer than people think.

World Cup: Groups G and H decided today

Posted: 06/26/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Yesterday’s games went pretty much as expected. In Group E, Switzerland advanced second behind France thanks to a Xherdan Shaqiri hat trick. Meanwhile, France was not at its best but still got the point needed to clinch first place. Ecuador and Honduras are the rare American teams in this World Cup who looked average at best throughout. Honduras in particular has been one of the two or three worst teams in Brazil, and couldn’t even find an answer in an easy group. Their -7 goal differential is second worst to Cameroon. Again, Group E is the only group where the European teams clearly triumphed over the American teams. Ecuador and Honduras are the first two and perhaps only two American teams eliminated before the round of 16, which means that, depending if the US progresses, as many as half of the last 16 could be from the Americas. Meanwhile, Group F featured some more goals than the three total scored by France, Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras yesterday. Argentina defeated Nigeria 3-2 in an exciting game, but the Nigerians still became the first African team to advance when Iran lost to Bosnia. It’s really unfortunate that Bosnia were eliminated, because I think they played pretty well throughout the tournament and were a better team than Nigeria. If they were in a different group (maybe Group C or Group H), they could be looking ahead to a last 16 game. They’re a young-ish team, though, so could easily have more success in the future.

Group G is living up to its “Group of Death” billing. Shockingly, it seems like Portugal, the lone team in this group with a co-best player in the world, is the weakest link. With that said, all four teams are still alive, although it would take a huge win for Portugal or a huge loss for the US to overturn the US’s goal differential advantage; while Portugal is -4, the US is +1. If either game ends in a draw, the two teams that are ahead now, Germany and the US, will advance in that order. Barring a loss, Germany is probably the top team in the group, and there has therefore been a lot of talk about the US and Germany possibly playing for a draw. I hope that doesn’t happen, and don’t think it will. Both teams have said that they are going all out to win this game, and I would tend to believe them. The US has a German coach which makes the plot juicier, and it’s also important to remember the 2002 quarterfinal game between these two teams. Despite being outplayed by the Americans, Germany prevailed 1-0 in that game in controversial fashion, as the US were denied what looked like a clear penalty in the second half. With all that said, it seems like we’re in for an exciting game and not a boring 0-0 tie. The game between Portugal and Ghana is set up to have a lot of goals, both because both teams are explosive offensively and because a tie wouldn’t suit either team. There’s an added incentive to score a lot of goals and win by a wide margin, so expect both teams to come out with all guns blazing.

Group H is a lot more straightforward, even though all four teams are alive in that group, too. Belgium has already clinched progression, and will advance as the top team if they tie or beat South Korea. The Koreans are for all intents and purposes eliminated; like Portugal, they would need to win by multiple goals to make up goal differential. It seems very unlikely that South Korea will beat Belgium by multiple goals. That means that the game between Russia and Algeria is basically another elimination game. Algeria has been a big surprise: after being labeled as one of the worst teams in the tournament (I had them #28), they have looked explosive, with five goals and three points in two games. Because they already have a win, they can tie against Russia and still advance, while Russia would need a win to progress over the African team. Because this group plays after the other one, and because the teams that progress from these two groups will play each other, some interesting things could happen depending on what happens in Group G. If Germany wins the group, which seems likely, Belgium will try to beat South Korea so they can avoid Germany. But if the US knocks off Germany and wins the group, Belgium might try to lose to South Korea and hope for an Algeria win, because that would lead to the Belgians playing the US and Algeria being forced to play the supposedly tougher opponent in Germany. That’s just speculation, though, and it’s more likely that all four teams will be playing to win. If that’s the case, then Belgium will almost certainly have enough to eliminate South Korea, while the game between Algeria and Russia depends largely on which Algeria team shows up. If it’s the explosive team that we’ve seen so far in the World Cup, they’ll likely be able to take at least a point from Russia. But if it’s the team we thought we’d be seeing heading into the World Cup, it might be a long day for Algeria.

My Predictions: Germany will avoid a loss and win the group, while the second spot will go down to the wire. It’s a coin toss, but I think it’s likely that one of the two games would tie, which would put the US through in second. Meanwhile, I think Belgium will eliminate South Korea and Algeria will take the second spot.

World Cup: Groups E and F decided today

Posted: 06/25/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

Another good day of soccer yesterday was overshadowed by yet another biting incident involving Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. In case you aren’t familiar with Suarez, this is not the first time he’s bit someone on the field. Once would be shocking and unforgivable, but this is bite #3 for Suarez; that’s just mind-blowing. He’s an uber-talented player, but his temper is out of control. A suspension is likely to come, and Suarez needs to get some kind of help before he takes the field again and puts people at risk. Anyway, Uruguay scored a minute after the bite behind the head of defender Diego Godin, and they held on to eliminate 10-man Italy, who needed just a draw to win. I don’t feel bad for Italy because they were poor and didn’t deserve to progress. Then again, Uruguay didn’t deserve it either. These two and England all underachieved, which makes Group D perhaps the most underachieving based on its sky-high expectations. I just hope that Colombia, who beat Japan 4-1, running their record to 3-0-0 and goal differential to +7, crushes Uruguay. Meanwhile, Greece upset Ivory Coast 2-1, sending the Greeks through to the round of 16 over Ivory Coast. The way they won was cruel, with a stoppage time penalty breaking a deadlock that would have put Ivory Coast through. But while it was sad to watch the Africans wilt after the penalty, they really should have done better. They were much more talented than Greece, and played poorly. If they had played to their potential, they would have six points right now and would have a date with Costa Rica in the round of 16.

Group E looks a lot like Group C did before yesterday in that there is a clear favorite to win the group (France) and a wide-open race for the second spot. France isn’t officially through, but even if they lose to Ecuador, their +6 goal differential and six points should be enough. Ecuador needs the points more, because they are locked in a battle with Switzerland and even pointless Honduras. The race between Switzerland and Ecuador is close, because while Switzerland has the easier game, Ecuador would progress if both games end in ties due to their 0 goal differential (Switzerland is -2). Meanwhile, Honduras would need a near-miracle to advance. They’d have to beat Switzerland by multiple goals and Ecuador would need to lose to France by multiple goals. For all intents and purposes, this is a race between Switzerland and Ecuador, who are locked on three points. Obviously, if one gets a better result than the other, that team will go through. But, even after their 5-2 loss to France, Switzerland must be slight favorites solely because they play one of the worst teams in the World Cup, Honduras, while Ecuador plays one of the best in France. One thing is for sure: After American teams when a perfect six for six in qualifying in groups A-D (Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay), at least one American team will fail to qualify from Group E. And after getting just two of its first six teams into the last sixteen, Europe could sweep Group E. In that way, it’s sort of a backwards group.

Group F is pretty clear cut. Barring a loss to Nigeria, Argentina will top the group. Nigeria is through unless they lose to Argentina (probable) and Iran beats Bosnia (less likely). Iran is out unless that scenario happens, while Bosnia has already been eliminated even though they looked pretty good in their first two games. You’d think that Bosnia would play at full strength to avoid going home without a point, and they have to be favored over Iran, which means Nigeria should be heavily favored to get through over Iran. This group seems pretty clear cut and boring, and it’s also had by far the least scoring of any group, with just 10 goals in four games. If Nigeria lost 2-1 and Iran won 2-1, things would get interesting. Each team will have scored two and allowed two goals in the group, and they tied 0-0 in their head to head game. That means lots would be drawn to determine which team would progress, which would be kind of unfair and also cool. But I don’t think that’s likely to happen, because Iran isn’t likely to score more than a goal; they are the only team without a goal in the World Cup.

My predictions: France clinches top spot with a result against Ecuador, while Switzerland and Honduras tie, putting the Swiss through and eliminating Ecuador. Meanwhile, Argentina and Nigeria both qualify from Group F, with Bosnia taking three points from Iran.