Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 16: Switzerland 1, Spain 0

Well it took to the very last game of the first round set of games in Round 1, but we finally have a group favorite go down. Given how many pundits were picking Spain as a favorite to win the whole tournament, this was a shocker. (Other highest ranking teams in groups that did not win were France, Italy, and England.)

The game was the classic mode World Class upset where one team dominates play and makes plenty of opportunities but can't put the ball in the net. The Swiss goal, while not a fluke, game off a long goal kick, a challenge won in the air, and an opportunistic rebound.

One complaint I've heard about the World Cup is that with scoring down the "better" team doesn't always win. Funny how I didn't hear that complaint about hockey. In fact, the more I've blogged the more I've thought that the World Cup has a lot in common with America's favorite sporting event: the NCAA tournament. Sometimes the draw opens up for a team because a favorite is knocked off by someone else. Sometimes a serviceable team plays above their head for one game. Sometimes the style of play differs enough to make offensive juggernauts struggle to make points. For me, there is excitement seeing a team like North Korea standing toe to toe with Brazil or a Swiss team hanging on to a slim lead while a heavyweight tries to knock the door down.

Since this game means all teams have now played one of their three opening round games, here are a couple of questions to ponder going into the second round of pool play:

--How much trouble is Spain in?
A lot. The number two team in the world is certainly capable of getting through, but Chile looked awfully good against Honduras, and they can play for a tie against Spain. The Swiss are capable of losing a game, but even if they lose to Chile, they would still have an edge over Spain unless Spain beats Chile. (A tie is worth 1 point in pool play, a win 3). If Switzerland beats Honduras, they are through to the next round. Still, a team that looked hard pressed to score can never feel safe until they are there.

--Besides Spain, which group favorite (top seeded team in group) is least likely to advance?
The Italians looked poor in their opener, but they dodged the bullet that Spain couldn't, getting the goal to equalize. Neither New Zealand nor Slovakia look like a worrisome game. Nightmare scenario? The scoring drought continues and they play to 0-0 ties against weaker opponents, losing on goal differentials.

England is in good shape as they should beat Slovenia and Algeria, but Slovenia's win over Algeria means that if the United States should beat Slovenia, England will need to be concerned about goal differential to avoid a match with Germany in the round of 16. Nightmare scenario? Could Robert Green let in another soft goal? In a low scoring World Cup could a fluke goal given up to Slovenia in the third game could mean a first round exit.

Perhaps the biggest of the remaining big dogs to be in serious trouble is France, both because they didn't look good against Uruguay and Mexico tends to play up during the World Cup. Group A has one of the lowest differences between the two highest seeds. Portugal is ranked #3 in the world to Brazil's #1, making that the "group of death." Greece is the next highest ranking #2 seed at 13, six spaces behind Argentina. The United States is next at 14, six spaces behind England at 8. Mexico at 17, is 8 spaces behind 9th ranked France, but they are trending upward in the second half of qualification while France needed the famous handball to win the play-in series against Northern Ireland. Beyond the fact that France isn't playing particularly well, they are in a group with South Africa; the numbers say they won't go through but history is funny. The host nation has never failed to advance to the second round. Nightmare scenario? If Uruguay somehow manages to beat South Africa, France may be in a situation where it needs to beat Mexico. Even a tie against Mexico would leave them with 2 points going into a game with South Africa for all the marbles.

--Is Germany now the favorite?
Well, it was one game, and that against an aging Australia team. I'm not ready to anoint them just yet. I will say that with scoring being down and the altitude and ball playing tricks, the speedy wing play and passing of the Germans is looking better than the booming strikes from distance we are used to seeing. You can't win a World Cup in the first round, though, and none of those goals carry forward.

--Who outside of the Top 9 (Group Favorites + Portugal) has the best shot at a deep (say semi-finals) run?

On the basis of play in the first round, maybe Chile, but even if they win their group they get the "Group of Death" runner up. Certainly they could take Portugal (who, like France, struggled to qualify and looked listless against the Ivory Coast). But with the Swiss defeat of Spain, Chile might even get Brazil in the round of 16. That would be a fun game to watch, but they have a tough draw.

Both the Concacaf powers--U.S. and Mexico--would be possibilities. Of the two, I would say Mexico is more likely, because they could win their group and draw a Group B runner up that suddenly doesn't look like Greece anymore. I would certainly like the Tri Colores against Nigeria or South Korea (though no game is a shoo-in at that round). Also, I can't help but wonder whether all the concern about altitude might mean that the Mexican side--which plays a lot of games in Mexico City, might be more conditioned to altitude, which can affect both fatigue and ball flight characteristics.

Consider this scenario, though, with the United States having tied England, if they win against Algeria and Slovenia, that could mean that winning the group comes down to goal differential. And while Germany is waiting for the second place finisher in the US group, the winner of Group C gets the second place finisher in Group D--possibly Ghana. If Serbia can recover from their loss and grab the second spot they would also be a possibility. Granted, any game against an African team in the knock out stage would be a tough "away" match, the United States is used to playing in front of hostile crowds.

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