Overview: Another day another shock, as the World Champions come in last, and two good teams deservedly advance.
GOAL DIFFERENCE (FOR, AGAINST)
Paraguay Becomes an Undesirable Opponent
The Guarani are a defensive rock,
Before you play them take good stock,
Its not easy to crack their shell,
And their forwardmen can give you hell,
These South Americans will continue to shock.
Analysis : Gerardo Martino the Argentine coach of the Paraguayan team is a laid back, concentrated manager, who in the past years has managed to build on Paraguay’s traditions as a fantastic defensive unit (as for example the great team of 1998) and additionally fashion a dangerous goal machine. Paraguay attack out of their very well positioned world-class defensive shell, and burst forward to counterattack and harass their opponents. They don’t manage to always get many men forwards, but as the game against Slovakia shows they can flood the opponent with any number of players if they are not challenged at the back.
Strengths: Paraguay has a superbly strong defence, and have become very much a team to beat in this tournament. If the defence has a weakness, it's the ability to give away occasional freekicks and draw many yellows. Paraguay’s attack, which was so phenomenal during qualification, has not recovered from the loss of mercurial forward Salvador Cabanas to a bullet-inflicted head wound in December. This is compiled with the fact that Oscar Cardozo is not finding anywhere near his normally outstanding form after injury, and the newly drafter Lucas Barrios doesn’t link up very well with colleagues. This is demonstrated by the fact that two of their three goals were scored by midfielders and the last by a defender. The individual potential of their attack is phenomenal, but its functioning as an effective unit is taking time to re-materialize.
Prognosis: Paraguay is an extremely difficult opponent for Japan, and with the solidity of their defence are more than capable to continue advancing in this tournament.
Slovakia Finally Hit Potential at the Ideal Moment
Little Slovakia green hilly country,
Carry quite a bit of talent in their pantry,
It took them two mediocre displays to finally explode,
And inflict a memorable defeat that the Italians were owed.
Analysis: Slovakia’s advance from the group was never an impossibility. Carrying the mantle of the great Czechoslovak footballing traditions, these lads have more than impressed over the past four years. Many of their younger talents including Weiss, Stoch and Hamsik are already performing for top clubs (Bolton, Twente and Napoli respectively). The rest of the team is very well integrated, defends well and has had a good selection of goalkeeping options to choose from.
Not brilliant at defending, the Slovaks try to retain possession in the opponents half. They achieve this in rather an improvisational way rather than through smooth consistency... and this raises questions as to how long this adventure can be kept going past the Group phase.
Strengths: Slovakia have a great finisher in Vittek, a highly creative midfield with Hamsik, Stoch and Weiss all able to pull rabbits out of hats and goals out the air on occasion. Their defensive midfield, and the solid defence built around Durica of Hannover and Sktrel of Liverpool is supported by a very good goalkeeper who is on his way to Everton to play second fiddle to US keeper Howard. The Slovaks have all the elements for winning games, especially if teams like Italy take them for granted.
Prognosis: Slovakia was not to be taken lightly. They qualified convincingly from the group with Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, have a couple of players who have played very well in recent years and just beat Italy in a decisive World Cup Match. They can however suffer from lack of discipline, and exhibit tactical shortcomings... two traits that could make them easy pickins for Holland, or?
New Zealand Now a Legendary Over Achiever
Epitaph: Three points from a team that was supposed to struggle for even a single... New Zealand have finally put themselves on the map of World Football with an impressive display.
Analysis: A rugged, tough tackling defence, and a relatively unskilled, but strong and aggressive attack allowed the Kiwis as New Zealand is known to snatch three defeats against three big teams in this World Cup. Their famous last minute draw against Slovakia was followed with an even more famous draw against Italy, which ultimately destabilized the World Champions even further and led to their elimination.
New Zealand’s achievements are nothing short of extraordinary, even if questions could be asked about the sometimes hard tackling and physical style of play of their forwards. One thing is clear though, neither Italy nor France nor England showed even an ounce of the same resolve that brought the Kiwis success in South Africa, and allowed them to depart with their heads high.
Italy Starts Playing After 242 minutes
Epitaph: The hangover of champions can last for years.
Analysis: Italy were a shrivelled lump of the team that won the World Cup in 2006. Just like in 1982, hiring the same coach to repeat the performance ended in a disastrous, early 2-0 exit at the hands of France. Lippi nobly took all the blame for selecting over the hill, injured, un-performing veterans like Cannavaro, Buffon, Pirlo, Iaquinta, Camoranesi and Gatusso and trying to blend them by force with a young generation accustomed to different playing styles.
The final minutes where Italy finally hit the accelerator and nearly levelled the match against Slovakia were a typical situation where disgruntled fans will never stop talking about red cards, offsides and penalties... the truth is that Italy should have performed to a level not allowing those elements to make a difference, not that they really did.
There is a clear explanation for Italy’s bad performance, and it lies in the fact that the team was simply badly put together, and their defensive posture caused the failure of a talented, but badly integrated attack line. The easyness of opponents like Slovakia and New Zealand then caused confidence problems which compounded the loss of self esteem and ended in, well... disaster.
Ciao Italy... Guidolin is a brilliant manager who will easily turn things around before the European Championship, this was a necessary wake-up call.
Performances to Remember
Justo Villar – Quietly efficient in Paraguay’s goal, Justo seemed to have a problem or two with high balls due to his low stature, but otherwise looked very determined and concentrated, being more than in part responsible for Paraguay conceding only the one goal.
Honourable Mention: Mark Paston – If he wasn’t so flappy with his hands he would be the best goalkeeper in the group. Paston was always there picking up all of the slip-ups of his back line. The 33 year old goalkeeper plays for Wellington Pheonix back home, and was virtually unknown on the world stage before this tournament. Well played.
Winston Reid – If only for his majestic equalizer against Slovakia in the dying seconds, he also contributed the assist for New Zealand’s goal against Italy, and the Danish trained Midtylland player added three excellent games in defence. He will certainly have made summer shopping shortlists after his performances alongside Nelsen here.
BEST OF THE GROUP: Ryan Nelsen – A phenomenal defensive performance from the Kiwi Captain. He was stable, focused and influenced the players around him to form a nearly impenetrable cocoon around Paston’s goal.
Paulo Da Silva – Didn’t make the breakthrough at Sunderland this season, but has been a key member of Paraguay’s defensive rock, both in qualification and in this group. He is excellent at avoiding unnecessary cards, and performs his defensive duties very efficiently and quietly.
Carlos Bonet – Played very well at right back for Paraguay, his crossed were among the most dangerous Paraguayan actions the first two games.
Claudio Morel – Ran up and down the pitch without pause for three games as Paraguay’s left back, supporting the attack and closing down the opponents already in midfield.
Enrique Vera – His energy and running through the center have been superb, and his beautiful goal against Slovakia caps a great performance by a key Paraguayan player.
Honourable Mention: Leo Bertos – A Kiwi with technique and speed needs to be mentioned. His performance leading New Zealands right wing efforts were very impressive, if not that dangerous.
Zdenko Strba – The Slovak defensive midfielder plays a key role stopping counterattacks and offensive moves by the team’s opponents. Played on despite receiving a terrible cut on the knee from Gatusso in the last game.
Fabio Quagliarella – Deserves high praise or coming on finally in Italy’s last game and scoring a goal, assisting, and nearly scoring another in the space of minutes. His performance was so good that questions will be asked why Lippi didn’t play him from the start when Italy was so problematic on the pitch.
Robert Vittek – Three goals, including two against Italy are not that much of a surprise from this old Slovak Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and now Turkish League goal poacher. Italy could have really used his cool and composed finishing in their team.
Vladimir Weiss – The coach’s son schemed, dribbled and ran with great talent. This 20 year old Bolton player clearly has a great future ahead of him... perhaps in a couple of days already.
Coach: Gerardo Martino – The way he prepared Paraguay is exceptional. The veteran Argentine manager could really be rewarded for his long-term hard work making a world beating side out of a modest South American team.
11 Flops to Forget
Gianluigi Buffon – receives just a slap on the hand... he only played 46 minutes and was rulled out for the rest of the games afterwards... this off course was something that should have been avoided by not taking the experienced keeper to the World Cup injured, and then not starting him at the cost of a sub.
Gianluca Zambrotta – Looked a dinosaur with constipation, delivering very little energy in Italy’s right back slot. Following his bad club season, this was not that much of a surprise.
Fabio Cannavaro – Slow, mistake prone, moments of genius from the Italy captain will not overshadow the fact that he often looked exposed and late at the back. Marcello Lippi chose to ignore his miserable season with Juventus in building the Italian defence around him. The legend of Cannavaro from 2006 won’t be too affected by this.
Giorgio Chiellini – His floppy Juventus season made this once highly coveted defender lose a lot of respect this season. The mistake which gifted Slovakia their first goal was significant, and Giorgio had a weak three games.
Tony Lockhead – Anything he touched seemed to turn to gold... well yellow. Clearly more of a rugby player, his late tackles could have and should have ended up as red cards.
Simone Pepe – Deployed on the right wing for Italy, the former Udinese and future Juventus man was kept on the pitch by the Italian coach far too long. He contributed a lot of useless crosses and some inaccurate shots but little else.
BIGGEST FLOP: Riccardo Montolivo – Heralded as the next best thing after Pirlo, Del Piero and Totti before the tournament, Montolivo is one of those players that you can’t understand what managers love in him. Much of his passing was badly timed, many shots were off target and he managed to get lost in the midfield traffic on numerous occasions.
Chris Killen – The attacking Kiwi seems to have learned his trade as a defender, because the amount of fouls he drew from elbowing opponents in the jaw or worse was embarrassing.
Oscar Cardozo – The brilliant Benefica striker has failed to find his form for Paraguay, and looked something like a waste of space on the pitch these three games. A shadow of himself.
Vicenzo Iaquinta – hit a penalty, but missed many even easier opportunities in front for Italy. His passing was badly timed and he looked completely out of sorts.
Coach: Marcelo Lippi – If you manage to drive a Ferrari off a cliff does it matter that it was a Ferrari?
Lippi gest credit for his public apology and taking the blame all on himself. Its hardly his to bear alone, as his players really disappointed also. Flop of the Group nevertheless.