Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Group Stage Wrap-Up: Groups E, F, G and H!

Since I'm living at work for the duration of the G20 summit, I wasn't around to blog last night. Therefore, before the knockout stage starts tomorrow, let's knock off the remaining 16 teams while I eat my Swiss Chalet dinner.

Group E

Netherlands: I'm not surprised with the Dutch sweeping their way through the group. But now the pressure is on for L'Oranje not to screw it all up again in the knockouts. They've got Arjen Robben back which is a bad sign for every other team. He made an impact immediately upon subbing in, smashing a shot off the post leading to the winner against Cameroon.

Japan: The Blue Samurai's progression is something I didn't expect at all. I was fully expecting a last-place finish for the boys from the far east, but they have certainly impressed, culminating in their 3-1 win over Denmark in a match they just had to draw. With samurai-like precision, two great free-kick goals buried the Danes in the final group match and sent Japan through with two wins. Their one loss came to the Netherlands, but it was a tight 1-0 affair that the Japanese were happy with considering the stature of their opponent.

Denmark: Not without talent, the Danish mix of youth and veterans bounced back well from their 2-0 loss to the Dutch with an impressive comeback victory over Cameroon. That set them up for a do-or-die encounter with Japan they were expected to win, but they got crushed by the set piece and couldn't overcome that. The red and white football aces certainly aren't the worst team to be eliminated, but that's the luck of the draw in the cruel World Cup group stages.

Cameroon: The poor Indomitable Lions and my boy Rigobert Song disappointed in South Africa to be sure with three losses. A 1-0 loss to Japan highlighted the team's inexperience, and that led to a bit of a revolt within the ranks. Senior players demanded Paul le Guen play the more experienced campaigners over the youngsters, and they responded by taking a 1-0 lead over Denmark. But that lead was lost, and was their final match after they'd been eliminated. Without surprise, le Guen is gone now.

Group F

Paraguay: As a South American team playing alongside the world class talents from Brazil, Argentina, etc, the Paraguayans are often overlooked. They've never made a serious run at the World Cup, but these guys are still pretty good. That being said, this group was a complete mess, and they were held to a draw by New Zealand. They play Japan next in a knockout tie that could go any which way, but I can't see them making it much further than the quarters.

Slovakia: For a team that played so poorly over their first two matches, the Slovaks must be in seventh-heaven over their insane 3-2 win over Italy to make it out of the group. They're in unprecented territory and play the Dutch next, so good luck Slovakia, you're gonna need it!

New Zealand: Three matches, three draws, two goals for, two goals against. For a team with semi-professional players and no big names, the Kiwis played a great tournament and should leave South Africa with nothing but absolute pride in themselves.

Italy: Ouch. Time to blow it up, Azzurri.

Group G

Brazil: Never a doubt to top the group, Dunga's side wasn't showing 100% Brazil in the group stage. Sure, there's the fact that Dunga has implemented a more defensive style, but conceding goals to North Korea and Ivory Coast isn't a great sign. The 0-0 draw to Portugal was absolutely boring albeit heated, though both the Portuguese-speaking teams knew they were going to go through with a draw, so I'm sure that had something to do with it. Look for them to start turning it on now that they're in the Round of 16.

Portugal: We just wouldn't shut up about Portugal's qualifying troubles in Europe, but let's not forget that these guys are ranked third in the world. As dumb as the FIFA rankings are, I think they've got the top 10 pretty accurate. They just love 0-0 against African teams (they drew Cape Verde Islands 0-0 in a friendly before drawing Ivory Coast 0-0), but a 7-0 destruction of North Korea sealed their ticket to the next stage where they'll be in tough.

Ivory Coast: There was a glimmer of hope for the Ivorians, and following Drogba's journey through his broken arm was captivating for African fans (and Chelsea fans alike). But in the end, it was the nasty 3-1 loss to Brazil that did the Elephants in and killed their hopes. The Group of Death has struck, and it's the Africans that are done.

North Korea: A great first half against Brazil had everyone buying into the hype of a shutdown defence, and then they allowed 12 goals over the rest of the tournament. Of course, in North Korea they all believe they've just won the World Cup, Stanley Cup and FedEx Cup combined.

Group H

Spain: Great reslience from the Spaniards to bounce back from that shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland to win two straight and take the group outright. They've got Portugal next, which hardly seems like a reward for winning your group, but it will be a stern test for the European Champs that might harden them enough to go on a deep run.

Chile: Chi-chi, eh-eh-eh, Viva Chile! They faced the prospect of winning their first two matches and still not making it out of the group, but a gutsy performance in the 2nd half when down a man and 2-0 to Spain helped seal their passage when they scored to improve their goal differential over Switzerland (even if that never ended up coming into play). Next up is Brazil, who beat them both times in qualifying, so the run might end early.

Switzerland: Hopp Schwiiz no more. It's a cruel exit for the Swiss after a memorable opening win over Spain, but it was their lack of depth up front that knocked them out. The one goal against the Spaniards was the only one they managed in three matches. They really should have done better against Honduras in their finale, but they couldn't rise up to the occasion, and are now home to get ready to lose to England in Euro 2012 qualifying.

Honduras: These guys were brutal, though now I'm intrigued to see all the guys who play for Honduran side Motagua absolutely rip apart Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup Group Stage Wrap-Up: Groups C and D

I made it through the day, so you know England didn't lose. But there is quite a bit of intrigue heading into the next set of matches on Saturday and Sunday. Let's start with Group C.

Group C

USA: I was really hoping to start off this group with England, but the States played some thrilling soccer through their three matches. They got some fortunate breaks (Robert Green's howler), and more unfortunate breaks (Mo Edu's non-goal, and Clint Dempsey's non-offside goal), but in the end they got a great story in Landon Donovan's stoppage time winner over Algeria that saved them from certain elimination and vaulted them past England atop the group. They're lined up for a potentially great run.

England: Ah, let's try to keep this short. If I start to ramble, this would be the longest blog of all time. England were supposed to cruise through the group, but they certainly didn't make it easy. Beating Slovenia was huge, and squeaking by with a 1-0 victory doesn't inspire the greatest of confidence heading forward. If only Wayne Rooney scored then the group would be England's. Instead, he hit his shot off the post (credit to keeper Samir Handanovic for getting a hand on it - no pun intended). England have the toughest of possible roads to the World Cup final, but I say bring it on. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Let's avoid penalties, and maybe they can advance a round or two.

Slovenia: If not for Donovan's last second goal over Algeria, the little Eastern European nation would be off to the knockout stage. Lots of credit to them for pulling their weight, especially after beating out Russia to get to South Africa in the first place. It's too bad they couldn't hold on to their two-goal lead over the States in game number two, or else the group would have surely been theirs!

Algeria: The Desert Foxes gave up an ugly loss to Slovenia, were lucky England played the worst of worst games against them, and held the US quite honourably until the 91st minute. They certainly had lots to play for in the last match, as a win over the US would give them a fighting chance, but it wasn't to be. Yet another African nation on the outs.

Group D

Germany: The Germans certainly have had an up and down group stage. First, they systematically destroyed the Aussies, before losing to Serbia (Miroslav Klose's red card and Lukas Podolski's penalty miss are big factors in that). They finished off with a 1-0 win over Ghana which could have gone either way, so what to expect next? A date with England. Certainly one of the most juicy of Round of 16 matchups.

Ghana: As good as they've been, the Black Stars are simply lucky to be moving through, and will be the only African team to do so. They play USA next, but I don't see them beating the Americans. Ghana only scored two goals in three matches, and both via the penalty kick. They are flashy enough to create chances but can't finish at all up front. They're Africa's only hope, but I can't see them making it too much further.

Australia: It was quite the turbulent ride for the Aussies, and in the end they're out on goal differential thanks to the spanking they received from Germany in their opener. It's too bad they lost their talisman Tim Cahill to a questionable red card in that opener. The Everton man - who scored a typical Cahillian goal against Serbia - was sorely missed in the Aussie's 1-1 draw with Ghana. If he had played, the Socceroos could have been moving on. Instead, the dream is over.

Serbia: The Serbian team has always been built around a stymieing defence, and that was their downfall in South Africa, because they couldn't get anything going up front. They can boast a victory over Germany, but that required some luck. That win was sandwiched between two losses. Losing to Australia was especially tough, since they had a good shot to make it out of the group. Instead, they couldn't find another goal and end up last. Disappointing, to say the least.

Back tomorrow with Group E and F! Just who the heck is going to make it out of Group E? What's Italy going to do? We'll find out soon enough...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup Group Stage Wrap-Up: Groups A and B

Recently, I get a praising comment from friend, hockey rumour expert, and fellow blogger Mark Boffo. He said I was pulling my weight with this blog. An enjoyable comment, no doubt. I followed that up by not blogging for 12 days. Oops. It's the World Cup's fault, I promise.

However, I shall redeem myself. The next four days present a good opportunity to pass along some thoughts. With the group stage wrapping up in South Africa, here are some brief thoughts on each team as they finish their three-game round robin.

Group A

Uruguay: The first of what should be five out of five South American teams to make it out of their group, Uruguay have impressed after years of failure on the world stage. Though their opening draw with France may well be the most boring of the 36 matches played so far, they bounced back with an emphatic 3-0 win over South Africa and capped it off with a 1-0 win over Mexico in an exciting affair. They are set to face South Korea in the Round of 16, and I expect them to handle the Asian squad with relative ease.

Mexico: Mexico is one of those in-between teams in comparison to the rest of the world, but they always find a way to make it out of their group. This is the fifth straight World Cup that Mexico has safely made it to the knockout stage. They've got some talent, but I think their defence is too unpredictable, especially keeper Oscar Perez. They get Argentina next, so I fully expect them to get eliminated at the Round of 16 for the fifth straight time.

South Africa: I don't think anyone should be ashamed at how South Africa finished. They only lost out on the group stage on goal differential, and it was really a lot closer than the scorelines suggest. If not for a hit post in the South Africa-France game, and a big save in the Mexico-Uruguay game, the goal diff. could have very well been even. So the South Africans are the first host team not to make it out of their group, but they are also the weakest host team ever. Good for them to get a win over an historically good team in France in their last game, even if France are a shell of their former glory. Read on for more.

France: Les Bleus overshadowed everything good in this group - and the whole tournament so far - with their embarrassing performances on and off the field. Firstly, the team never deserved to be there in the first place. Secondly, my boy from Chelsea Nic Anelka called outgoing coach Raymond Domenech a bunch of really bad names, and got himself sent home. Thirdly, led by team captain Patrice Evra, the squad refused to train in protest of Anelka's dismissal. Finally, they exit the tournament with no wins, a draw and two crappy losses. Ouch.

Group B

Argentina: Of all the World Cup favourites, Argentina are in the best shape so far. You'll find no shock losses, draws, or bust-ups here. Only wins and goals under the crazy Diego Maradona, who is actually turning into a likable figure which is absolutely terrifying. Three matches, three wins, and an absolutely stacked lineup. All of that, and Leo Messi hasn't even scored yet. The best is yet to come.

South Korea: Can't say I picked this team to make it through, but they lucked their way through to an improbable spot in the Round of 16. If Nigeria had converted one more goal in their 2-2 draw, then it would be the Africans going through. Instead, Yakubu missed the sitter of all sitters, and the rest is history. I like the tactical approach from Asian sides like South Korea, but I don't see them beating Uruguay in the next round.

Greece: Things looked grim for Greece after their opening 2-0 loss to South Korea. Sure, they could always stake claim to being the 2004 European Champs, but they've never had any success in the World Cup. But they bounced back nicely with a 2-1 win over Nigeria, giving them a fighting chance against Argentina to sneak into the knockout stage. They had their opportunities, and held the Argentines off the board for most of the match, but in the end Maradona's side was too good. A valiant effort for the Greeks, though their tourney is over.

Nigeria: Another African nation on the outs, Nigeria were so close to getting through as I just mentioned, but it wasn't to be. The loss to Argentina was expected, and at only 1-0 that was fine. But the turning point was Sani Kaita's stupid retaliatory red card in the 2-1 loss to Greece; the guy is now getting thousands of death threats back home. I guess they really did need my injured Chelsea boy John Obi Mikel, eh! (I'll try to avoid mentioning every Chelsea player involved in the World Cup... but it won't be easy).

I'll be back tomorrow with final thoughts on Group C and D, provided I survive the day.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Blackhawks win the Cup; my love for the Leafs grows

Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks did something they hadn't done in 49 years: Win the Stanley Cup.

It was a strange ending to what was otherwise a rather colourful championship series, Patrick Kane scoring an overtime winner that managed to find that sweet spot of the net that hides the puck from everyone's view. But it was a goal nonetheless, and Chicago ended the longest active Stanley Cup drought.

That distinction has now been passed on to my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. And as much fun as that is for the rest of the Leaf-hating league, it only serves to make me a bigger fan.

Losing is part of being a fan, and losing a lot is part of being a Leafs fan. Now that we are finally alone as the most depressing franchise in the NHL, there's extra motivation to win. And if that hypothetical win were ever to happen, it would be all the sweeter.

The Leafs are planning a couple off-season moves that doesn't involve trading Kaberle or sitting through the draft: Thanks to my former roommate and hockey rumour expert Mark Boffo, I've learned that the Leafs are primed to name Dion Phaneuf the 18th captain in franchise history. And when they announce that, which should happen next week, they'll also be unveiling redesigned jerseys for next year.

There's no actual pictures of the jerseys yet, but according to the description, they'll basically be modern versions of the 92/93 jerseys. The folks over at Leafs HQ have done a mock-up of what they'll look like, and I'm very impressed!

Now if only the Jays would follow suit...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Alex Gonzalez vs. Alex Gonzalez

I recently caught up with a young woman with a fantastic last name. Emma Farquharson, founding director and editor of Mushy Pony, had a very interesting debate with me about the merits of the two Alex Gonzalezes in Blue Jays history.

Check it out here: Mushy Pony: Which Alex Gonzalez Hits Home?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Basketball Quandary

I'm a big sports fan. It began out of pure passion for my favourite teams, and continued to grow as I learned just about every sport you can name as I began to work in the industry. Flipping between the Stanley Cup finals and the NBA finals tonight, I'm clearly favouring one sport over the other. I'm all over this hockey broadcast.

Everyone loves lists, and every once and a while we go through our list of favourite sports. The order of my list has fluctuated over the years, but basketball has consistently been on the bottom.

I don't hate basketball. I know the game, follow the game and respect the game. But I just don't like it as much as other sports. What could it be, though? I know I can love basketball, and I've cheered for games with the same passion as I have any other sport. Let's look at the deep-rooted psychological issues at hand:

The biggest factor, I believe, is that my team hasn't ever been a true contender for the NBA championship, thus giving me real reason to believe that I "belong" in the community of basketball fans. The Toronto Raptors have won just a single playoff series in their history and that was back in 2001. Since then, it's been rebuilding and Eastern conference mediocrity. No doubt, if the Raptors were to contend, I would be a much bigger fan of the game in general.

That's the long term problem. In the short term, there's a whole other world of sports to distract me from falling in love with basketball.

For one, the World Cup is coming up, and that transcends all sports in my books. Another reason is the NHL, which has to unfortunately compete with the NBA at the same time for audiences during their respective championships. The Blackhawks and Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals is way more exciting to me because it's a new matchup. Lakers and Celtics is old news. I do say that with ignorance towards their storied histories, I realize, but for that reason it doesn't appeal to me as much as, say, a Cavs/Suns final would.

Could it be the game itself is just inferior to others? That's impossible to say for sure, and I know a lot of people would kill me for even thinking that. Perhaps I don't like it because it's too easy for one player to take over a game and pour in 50 points as opposed to, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a 25-pass play involving eight players leading to the one goal scored in a 90-minute soccer match. That's another reason, but really you can dig and find pros and cons like that for every sport out there.

In the end, I think my basketball quandary comes down to the Raptors. Just win, dammit!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Looking into World Cup style

I haven't had the chance to write up anything of my own in the past few days, so I'm going to redirect my legions of readers to Sonja Cori Missio's great blog, 90 Minutes of HOPP.

Check out her latest entry looking into the jerseys of every team at the World Cup in South Africa... except for North Korea.