Beautiful Game

Quarterfinal World Cup madness [Part 1]

wc-1400859202The gift that keeps on giving in this years World Cup, eight wonderful matches made up the round of sixteen and now we’re left with 8 teams.

And for the first time, the eight group winners have made it through to the quarterfinals – a feat that is most impressive once you realize that Brazil, Argentina, France and others have yet to hit top gear and really get going.

Belgium overcame the heroics of Tim Howard’s record setting performance for the USA, while everyone’s darling nation Costa Rica continues to drive forward showing that CONCACAF are no pushovers.

 

Germany v France

thomas-muller-celebrating-goal-in-germany-4-0-portugal-fifa-world-cup-2014

Muller to continue his domination

How delightful is this matchup? As a pure fan of the game, this is about as delicious as it gets for a quarterfinal showdown – the resurgent French against a German team that has continued to impressive at the very peek of the sport.

There is no doubting the strength of the Germans: a fourth successive World Cup semifinal berth awaits them, but an athletic and resilient French side stand between them and that lofty goal.

The youth of France in Pogba, Griezman, Varane and Matuidi against the guile of experience in Klose, Muller, Ozil, Scheinsteiger and the younger Kroos.

During a Summer where the heat of Brazil was to suffocate the skill of European nations, France and Germany have both dealt with expectations but have yet to hit full throttle.

With a berth in the semifinal awaiting, expect a chess match like tension from the off with both sides trying to assert control of the ball – the pace and speed of France can cause fits to a flu-ridden German side, but I fully expect Muller to continue his venomous form and drag his side into the semifinals.

With so much youth and tensions high, I fear we’ll see a first half red card in Rio de Janeiro.

Prediction: Germany 3 – 1 France

Man of the Match: Thomas Muller

 

It is Neymar's time to shine.

It is Neymar’s time to shine.

Brazil v Colombia

A true battle of South America, a very real chance of Colombia upsetting the host nation and a team of superstars still waiting to click – Brazil v Colombia gives us so much and more.

I doubted Brazil would make it this far after some poor, but winning, performances but this is where Scolari’s team comes together – better to peek late than peek early and crash out of the tournament, right?

While Neymar has shown moments of brilliance and Brazil has flashed their skill and flair, they have yet to really get going – the weight of a nation, the pressure of a host nation and the desperation to win in the spotlight.

But with the monkey off their back after sneaking past Chile, I fully expect Brazil to stand up and be counted, showing their talent and snatching a spot in the semifinal.

Don’t get me wrong, Colombia is more than capable – as they have shown so far this Summer – and will be another stern test for the hosts, but this is where the party ends for the South American upstarts.

James Rodriguez has been brilliant, perhaps the best young player at this tournament, but much like Costa Rica against Netherlands I fear this is where they run out of steam.

Prediction: Brazil 2 – 1 Colombia

Man of the Match: Oscar

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Predictions: How did we do in the Group Stage?

Costa Rica easily topped Group D

Costa Rica easily topped Group D

Annnnd, that’s a wrap.

The Groups are done with England, Italy, Portugal and Spain all sent packing, while South Americans reign supreme with Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina all progressing to the next stage.

So, how did our predictions go in the Group Stage? Here’s how:

 

Group A

Our prediction: Brazil, Croatia

What happened: Brazil, Mexico

Croatia can feel hurt by a controversial few calls in the first game against Brazil, but when they needed a win against Mexico to go through – they capitulated and a late red card killed any chance of a comeback.

Group B

Prediction: Spain, Chile

What Happened: Netherlands, Chile

The Dutch wave came crashing through Group B, slaughtering the Spaniards and setting up the Chileans to storm into the knockouts, a matchup with Brazil awaits the Group B runner ups.

Group C

Prediction: Ivory Coast, Colombia

What Happened: Colombia, Greece

Colombia won’t do anything without Falcao they said. Well, they did and they topped Group C with 9 goals, second only to the Dutch in the group stage. And Greece? Well, a cheeky Samaras penalty and some lucky snuck them through.

Group D

Prediction: England, Italy

What Happened: Costa Rica, Uruguay

– Costa Rica quickly became the darlings of the World Cup with a comprehensive win over Uruguay, but England and Italy also did little to impress – both losing matches to Uruguay and unable to book places in the final 16. England were especially lack lustre, frail and unimpressive – typical.

Group E

Prediction: France, Switzerland

What Happened: France, Switzerland

PERFECT! A perfect group, that’s all I have to say – France rallied after losing Ribery pre-tournament and look to be a real contender in Brazil.

Group F

Prediction: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina

What Happened: Argentina, Nigeria

Well, Leo Messi’s uncle might not be happy with his performance but his teammates will be okay with the timely goals the little magician scored to help Argentina top Group F. Nigeria played well enough to advance, but a payment row threatens to derail their knockout round before it starts.

Group G

Prediction: Germany, Portugal

What Happened: Germany, USA

Muller being Muller, Germany being Germany and the destruction of Portugal in their first match cemented the Germans atop Group G. And that demolition for Ronaldo and Company was the difference, as they ended up tied on points with the Americans, but down on goal difference. Tsk tsk.

Group H

Prediction: Belgium, South Korea

What Happened: Belgium, Algeria

Belgium was your hipster cousin’s choice, the real ‘dark horse’ of this tournament and they performed well enough – not convincingly though – to make it to the next round. Algeria was a big surprise, but it was always a toss up to see who the other team out of Group H was going to be.

Loyalty is dead? Wake up – it’s been dead for a while.

5-3

Its all about the money.

The buzz after former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas signed for Chelsea FC, is that loyalty is dead.  Plot twist: Loyalty in professional sports is dead, and it’s been dead for a while – wake up and smell the rotting corpse everyone.

Luis Figo proved that, when he ditched Barcelona for swanky new digs at Real Madrid, fans reacted furiously, even throwing a pig head at him.

And it’s not just the beautiful game, loyalty is dead across the sporting globe.

In the NBA? There are 18 active players who have played their whole careers with one franchise – seven who were drafted by other teams.

'The Decision' Didn't go over well in Cleveland

‘The Decision’ Didn’t go over well in Cleveland

Let’s not forget about the most famous ‘Decision’ and Lebron ‘taking his talents to South Beach.’ That got a few people upset, eh?

How about the NHL where free-agency has ruined any sense of loyalty – where captains like Jerome Iginla or Daniel Alfreddson ditch their respective clubs to chase personal glory.

Heck Ilya Kovalchuk shocked the professional hockey world, ditching a $77 million dollar contract in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils for an even bigger contract in the KHL .

In baseball, just 8 active players have played more than 10 years with a single team – topped by New York Yankee Derek Jeter.

Gone are the days of Joe DiMaggio, Dan Marino, Steve Yzerman, Ryan Giggs and the Paolo Maldini’s – Legends who stuck with their teams through thick and thin. Now players chase personal glory, crave their big pay day.

And can you blame pro athletes? I can’t.

It’s a business and everyone is trying to get their payday or grab another trophy, personal glory.

Can you honestly tell me, if a rival company came to you and offered you more money, more guaranteed years that you wouldn’t consider it? That you wouldn’t jump at the chance to make more money?

Some might say no, but most would be out the door without a guilty second.

And that is the hypocrisy of where we place athletes and the false values we impose on them – it’s a business, whether we like it or not, and

Assou-Ekotto: Plays for the money, not the game.

Assou-Ekotto: Plays for the money, not the game.

business is about making money.

It’s refreshing to see comments from an athlete like Tottenham Hotspur player Assou-Ekotto, who infamously stated, “I play for the money. Football’s not my passion.”

“All people, everyone, when they go to a job, it’s for the money. So I don’t understand why, when I said I play for the money, people were shocked. Oh, he’s a mercenary. Every player is like that.”

He was lambasted by media, ripped up by fans – but why? Because we hold this idealistic mentality that players should be blindly loyal, play for the ‘love of the game’ and wear their hearts on their sleeves?

Blind loyalty a hopelessly romantic notion, sounds lovely, but it’s just not true anymore in modern sports.

So while Arsenal fans burn Fabregas shirts in the streets and Cleveland fans still reel about ‘The Decision’ – wake up and realize, Loyalty is dead and it’s not coming back.

And as Puff Daddy so eloquently said – it’s all about the Benjamins.

World Cup Group Predictions (Part 2)

wc-1400859202We continue our predictions for the Group Stage of the World Cup, if you missed part 1 it’s right here.

Will the French fall apart again? Can Miroslav Klose kick himself to a World Cup record and will the Belgians emerge from Group H?

All this and more in our predictions…

Group E: The French Revolution

France limps into the World Cup and surprise: Find themselves in a group most teams would kill to be in, sure Ecuador and Switzerland are going to be tough tests – with Honduras breaking a few legs – but France should top this group easily, even without Franck Ribery. Even without Samir Nasri – playing brilliantly for City – this is a French team that shouldn’t capitulate a la past performances.

Switzerland will be a tough opponent, always stingy on defence, but I see a young, exciting Ecuador getting out of this group – with the matchup between the two my match to watch in this group. The quick, pacey counter of Ecuador against a hard to break down Switzerland side? Sounds fun.

Only 22 and already at his second World Cup, Xherdan Shaqiri will be looking to breakout and could be the difference between Switzerland limping home or making it to the knockouts.

Must Watch Match: Ecuador v Switzerland

Standout Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

Prediction: 1. France, 2. Switzerland, 3. Ecuador, 4. Honduras

Group F: Lionel Messi and a few Others

Argentina will win this group, with a goal difference of about 20. Seriously though, they’ll stroll through this group like they’re in a field full of daisies, just hoping to not injure anyone as they head to the knockouts.

With first place locked up, it’s a three way battle for second place and I like the odds of Bosnia-Herzegovina making it through to the knockout rounds – at their first World Cup I expect them to overcome the challenge of Nigeria and Iran. There is no doubt that the likes of Edin Dzeko and Asmir Begovic will be difference makers for this side, but I expect Captain Emir Spahic to be a difference maker in defence.

Must Watch Match: Argentina vs themselves

Standout Player: Lionel Messi

Prediction: 1. Argentina, 2. Bosnia-Herzegovina, 3. Nigeria, 4. Iran

Group G: The Klosest group

Without Marco Reus and just one striker, can the Germans prevail in Brazil? Of course they can, but they’ll have to navigate perhaps the toughest group, facing Portugal, USA and a tough to break down Ghanian side.

Miroslav Klose is looking to break records, while Philipp Lahm in defence could be just as important to the team as what Muller, Ozil and the rest can create in midfield, especially against a never-say-die USA side and the stupidly talented Cristiano Ronaldo. I fully expect Germany to top this group, but the battle for second will be the fiercest in the group stage.

Portugal are lead by Ronaldo, but it’s the depth of the team that has many wondering if they have enough to get out of the group, many predictions showing the Portuguese falling out to the Americans lead by Jurgen Klinsmann.

However, I think Portugal will do enough to scrape through, with the USA finishing third – Ghana has only won once in their last five matches, although destroyed South Korea 4 – 0 in their final warm up after being held scoreless in their prior four matches.

Must Watch Match: Portugal v USA

Standout Player: Miroslav Klose

Prediction: 1. Germany, 2. Portugal, 3. USA, 4. Ghana

Group H: The Belgians are coming

Many have labelled Belgium as a Darkhorse in this tournament, with the talent to upset the apple cart and make waves on the international stage – and I say, why not? Front to back this team has talent, Thibaut Courtois in net, Vincent Kompany at the centre of a sturdy defensive corps and Axel Witsel managing the midfield. That’s without mentioning the attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku, who poses a lethal record up front.

This group is an excellent way for Belgium to warm-up, face some sturdy competition and get ready for the knockouts, anything less than topping the group will be a disappointing start to their campaign.

So who joins Belgium in the knockout rounds? South Korea were creamed 4 – 0 by Ghana in their final warm-up, while Fabio Capello’s Russia are undefeated in their last five matches (Albeit against the likes of Morroco, Slovakia and Armenia), so who goes through? I’ll stick with South Korea to sneak through, by the skin of their teeth but for me, it’s a coin-toss between Russia/South Korea to make it to the next round.

Must Watch Match:  Belgium v South Korea

Standout Player: Eden Hazard

Prediction: 1. Belgium, 2. South Korea, 3. Russia, 4. Algeria

– – –

Henry is covering the World Cup all Summer long – previews, recaps and more – daily updates on the beautiful games greatest competition.

You can follow him on twitter at @HenryWhitfield , where he live tweets about sports far too much.

World Cup Group Predictions (Part 1)

wc-1400859202Ahhh – it’s finally here!

The World Cup is just days away from kick-off, even if Brazil isn’t ready for it, the World is waiting.

While the issues surrounding the World Cup in Brazil can’t be ignored, we find ourselves far too excited for a competition that only comes around every four years – the greatest sporting event in the World.

With our favourite to win Brazil – we’d look like idiots if we said England, right? – we give you Part One of our World Cup Predictions

 

Group A: Brazil’s to lose

Perhaps the easiest group to predict, as it is clearly Brazil’s group and dare I say, World Cup, to lose. Their opening day match will be the hosts toughest, with a resilient and talented Croatia team, but as long as Neymar et al can handle the expectations, they should stroll through this group.

Now, who finishes second? It should be a battle between Mexico and Croatia, with the final group match between the two the decider. The talent in Croatia is undeniable with Rakitic, Modric, Jelevic and Bayern striker Mandzukic in their lineup – I give the edge to the Europeans to overcome Mexico and move on.

The big question for many is how will Brazil cope with the pressure? I guess only time will tell…

Must Watch Match: Brazil v Croatia

Standout Player: Fred

Predictions:  1. Brazil, 2. Croatia, 3. Mexico, 4. Cameroon

Group B: A Chilean Surprise

One of the tastiest match ups of the tournament will be Spain v Netherlands, where  no love is list between these two foes. Who wins this matchup should decide who finishes first, with second not guaranteed to fall the losers way.

I like Chile as a dark horse in this tournament, while riddled with injuries, the form of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez could be what slips the South Americans into the next round. I like the chances of Chile beating Australia and sneaking a point against Spain, putting pressure on the Dutch to get a result in the final group match – where I favour the Chileans.

Oh and the Australians are there, for a nice vacation – don’t expect them to win a game, but they’ll play a physical game, reminding everyone that they’re actually there.

Must Watch Match: Netherlands v Spain

Standout Player: Arturo Vidal

Predictions:  1. Spain, 2. Chile, 3. Netherlands, 4. Australia

Group C: The rise of the Elephants

This is a tough group to predict with all four teams holding a realistic chance of moving onto the next round. For me, the Ivory Coast win this group by a hair, using the guile and talent of Yaya Toure, Wilfred Bony and Didier Drogba to reach the knockout phase.

As far as second place goes, Colombia is down Falcao and Greece pose more of a threat than they have in recent years. The Greeks have a defensive mentality that Jose Mourinho would be proud of, sneaking a goal and frustrating opposing strikers.

Lastly, with all due respect to Keisuke Honda – I just don’t see a way out of the group for Japan. Then again, with a group this close, they could top it off if they scrape out the results.

Must Watch Match: Japan v Colombia

Standout Player: Wilfred Bony

Predictions: 1. Ivory Coast, 2. Colombia, 3. Greece, 4. Japan

Group D: My biased prediction

We start this group off with a disclaimer: I am a full-fledged, red-blooded, patriotic England supporter.

Now that is out of the way, how does Group D shake out? Italy has the most talented side in this group, no arguing that, even without Guiseppe Rossi the team possesses talent up front in Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli, combined with the ageless Pirlo – this is a scary good Italian side. As pointed out by a friend, they’ve even got experience in Brazil after last Summer’s Confederations Cup, where they narrowly lost to Spain on penalties in the semifinal before beating Uruguay on penalties for third.

Then there is Uruguay, led by Luis Suarez (Assuming he’s healthy..) who seems to thrive amid controversy and against the odds, how he performs will be crucial to his teams success. Their weakness is in defence, where teams with pace will be able to take advantage, meaning Suarez and company will need to score early and often.

That brings us to England. No expectations and a team that Roy Hodgson has tried to play down from day one. But as we close in on their opening match, it’s tough not to expect something from a team that boasts Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Captain himself, Steven Gerrard.

Much like Uruguay, their weakness is in defence with unreliable Glen Johnson at right-back and Phil Jagielka unproven at international level – but the talent could surprise some in Brazil, sneaking past Uruguay and Costa Rica and moving on.

I’ve got a much more indepth Group D preview coming your way, don’t worry.

Must Watch Match: Italy v Uruguay

Standout Player: Luis Suarez

Prediction: 1. England, 2. Italy, 3. Uruguay, 4. Costa Rica

Don’t forget to check out PART 2 of our Group predictions, with the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and darkhorse Belgium still to come.

– – –

Henry is covering the World Cup all Summer long – previews, recaps and more – daily updates on the beautiful games greatest competition.

You can follow him on twitter at @HenryWhitfield , where he live tweets about sports far too much.

CHELSEA v ATLETICO MADRID: Predicting the Starting Lineups

Diego Simeone and Jose Mourinho have kept quiet about their starting lineups leading up to their Champions League semi-final match, while both managers know their magic lineups they both must wait on last minute fitness tests to key players.

For Atletico Madrid they await to hear whether Turan is fit to play, while Chelsea await word on talisman midfielder Eden Hazard, who faces a fitness battle after picking up an injury against Paris St-Germain in their quarterfinal clash.

Chelsea Starting XI

Expect a bit of a shuffle at the back as much maligned left-back Ashley Cole gets a rare start as Cesar Azpilicueta shifts to the right to cover for suspended Ivanovic.

While I fully expect Ramires to be dropped to the bench due to poor form and Luis/Lampard partner in the midfield. With Eden Hazard expected to miss the match, Andre Schurrle gets the nod in the starting lineup.

Up front it’s an easy choice to take Eto’o, despite Ba’s recent hot-streak, it is the Cameroonian striker who has led the line well for Chelsea, creating chances and finishing them off. Don’t be surprised if Ba comes off the bench, while Torres might get some action with a nod to his Atletico past.

 

Atletico Madrid Starting XIScreen Shot 2014-04-21 at 7.13.40 PM

Diego Simeone was worried all week about the health of star Diego Costa, but the coveted striker recovers from a nasty incident with the post to lead the line for Los Rojiblancos.

Costa wasn’t Atletico’s only worry, with influential winger Arda Turan battling a groin injury and missing Friday’s match – he’s expected to make the bench, but don’t expect him to be starting Tuesday. A handful of players can fill his role with Adrian and Garcia the likely few, but with Adrian playing well as of late expect him to get the nod.

The last fear for Simeone was for that of his starting keeper, but with UEFA deciding that Thibaut Courtois is cleared to play Atletico knows they can trust the man between the posts.

 

Henry writes about his two passions the Beautiful Game and the Brutal Game – whether you’re a die hard Soccer fan or passionate hockey fan, he’s got you covered. 

You can follow him on twitter at @HenryWhitfield , where he live tweets about sports far too much.

MOYES OUT: Where do Manchester United turn next?

hqdefaultDavid Moyes Out?

Apparently the Chosen one is out, or rather soon will be unchosen. Reports coming through media today are that Manchester United’s billionaire owners have finally given up on the David Moyes adventure – looking to sack the Scot in the coming weeks.

Fergie’s chosen one has a woeful 52% winning percentage since taking over at United, winning just 27 games through his first 51 – unacceptable to the Glazers and United Chief Ed Woodward.

David Moyes signed Fellaini in the summer and added Spaniard Juan Mata in the January window, but still has been unable to pull off the results needed and the 2 – 0 loss against Everton this weekend has apparently sealed his fate.

Everyone from Jurgen Klopp to Carlo Ancelotti are linked to the team, maybe even flavour of the month Diego Simeone could be the answer to United’s woes – heck, even some fans are floating the idea of Ryan Giggs stepping away from the field and into the technical area.

Here are my three picks to succeed the unsuccessful successor to Ferguson;

Pep GuardiolaPep-Guardiola

Slim to none chance that the former Barcalona boss gives up on the German dream, on pace for Champions League glory, for non-Champions League football with United. That said, Pep would be a dream signing for United, someone who could inspire a lacklustre lineup and bring a big name behind the bench. Heck, the story lines are already writing themselves when you put the Spaniard up against former rival Mourinho.

What he’s won? La Liga  (3), Copa Del Rey (2), Bundesliga (1), UEFA Super Cup (3), Champions League (2), FIFA Club World Cup (2)

Former Clubs: Barcelona, Bayern Munich

Louis van Gaal LouisvanGaal_210183a

The Dutch coach has been long rumoured to replace Tim Sherwood at much maligned Tottenham, but a tempting move to United may be enough to hijack the Spurs replacement. This is a man who has won and excelled all over the world and could be a perfect manager to right the ship and balance things out before a long-term successor to Ferguson is found. He is the kind of manager United should have looked to in the Summer, someone who can guide the team through a transition.

What he’s won? Eredivisie (4), Champions League (1), La Liga (2), Bundesliga (1), UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup (2), Intercontinental Cup, Copa Del Ray

Former Clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands

Jurgen KloppScreen Shot 2014-04-21 at 9.50.25 AM

Last year’s flavour of the month, Klopp saw his stock rise dramatically last season with Borussia Dortmund’s Cinderella run to the Champions League final and while his side has seen less success this season, he’s seen as an astute tactician. With Bayern’s dominance in the League, I wouldn’t be surprised if he cashes in on a move to England and a chance to prove himself in a league that’s shown (A la Liverpool), that the right manager can turn a mid table side into a Champion.

What he’s won? Bundesliga (2), Champions League Runner Up (1)

Former Clubs: FSV Mainz 05, Borussia Dortmund

For me? Bring in Louis van Gaal for two to three years and transition, then take the time to line up the perfect long-term solution whether it be Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Roberto Martinez or whomever.

Whichever way the hammer falls for Manchester United, David Moyes is running borrowed time and it appears he’s no longer the Chosen One.

Henry writes about his two passions the Beautiful Game and the Brutal Game – whether you’re a die hard Soccer fan or passionate hockey fan, he’s got you covered. You can follow him on twitter at @HenryWhitfield , where he live tweets about sports far too much.