by Celso Chamochumbi - 06/28/2006
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Down to eight teams, the possibilities for World Cup 2006 abound. Soccer rivalries supersede political or historical antagonisms as the sporting world ponders whether there can be an all-European semi-finals, or even a South American final?
For purists, this will probably be the last good round of soccer. Teams will increasingly sacrifice "beauty" for "practical results", making the two seem that they were mutually exclusive. Of the eight teams, England and Brazil have been involved in their fair share of classic quarter-final matches in the last twenty years.
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In Mexico '86, the England-Argentina and Brazil-France matches captivated millions. Who can forget Diego Maradona undressing the English team on a dribbling run that began on his side of midfield, or Zico of Brazil wishing that he had the "hand of god" to guide his potentially game-winning penalty kick? Four Brazilian fans died that day from heart attacks, and talk of Maradona's "header" still inflames Brits, even though they earned some revenge with a 1-0 victory in 2002.
Four years later, a sharp English team, led by striker Gary Lineker calmly broke through the Cameroonian off-sides trap twice, and ended a mesmerizing World Cup performance by the Indomitable Lions. In USA '94, then three-time champion Brazil overcame a giant hurdle in defeating Holland, 3-2, at the Cotton Bowl, in what many regard as the best game of the tournament. Finally, these two powers from opposite shores of the Atlantic squared off in Korea/Japan '02 in a match that featured tallies from Michael Owen, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho, the last on an uncanny free kick from forty yards.
The remaining eight teams proved that there are many paths to the quarter-finals. Each of the eight groups will have one representative, and only two sides (Portugal and Ukraine) were not original group leaders. Ukraine advanced by virtue of their poise from the penalty spot, while the Italians benefited from a very generous call to eliminate Australia with a penalty kick in the last minute of stoppage time.
Argentina rode Maxi Rodriguez's spectacular goal in overtime to set up an epic match against host Germany. The home team scored twice early on Sweden, but attacked for the whole ninety minutes and left no doubt that they will have something to say about the outcome of this tournament. Germany and Argentina, by the way, have met twice in the last twenty years, and both times with the World Cup trophy on the line.
The surging French side staged a memorable come-from-behind win over Spain, scoring the second and third goals in the last ten minutes of the match. Brazil coasted past Ghana, and at the very least have Ronaldo's historic goal-scoring achievement to savor.
The other two teams still alive are England and Portugal. The former labored through the much-commented heat (why is playing in the heat 'oppressive' and in the cold 'courageous'?) and squashed Ecuador's dreams on a Beckham bender. And lastly, the Portuguese, a team coached by arguably the world's best in Luiz Felipe Scolari (Felipão), which survived an unrelenting Dutch side in a very draining match.
What follows is a closer look at the Friday matches, and ends with a peek at my crystal ball. All odds are from Bodog, and beware that they could change slightly in the hours prior to kick off.
Argentina vs. Germany
Friday, 11 a.m. EST
A rematch of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup finals, I firmly believe that the winner of this game will win the World Cup. Germany's tournament-opening 4-2 win over Costa Rica raised more questions than it provided answers about the team's capabilities, especially insofar as its defense was concerned.
Argentina, meanwhile, dominated upset-minded Ivory Coast, and steamrolled the troubled Serbia and Montenegro side, 6-0. Following that win, the Argentines emerged as solid championship contenders making the pre-tournament 7-1 odds look extremely generous.
Since then, however, the Germans have raked together three consecutive victories without allowing a goal. The Argentines proceeded to win their group with a 0-0 tie against a formidable Dutch side, and deflated a tenacious Mexican side with Rodriguez' extraordinary left-footed volley from the right corner of the eighteen yard box.
Argentina wins if:
It plays aggressive, tactically and physically. Remember, the home field angle is of great importance. This Argentine side is good enough to beat Germany, and perhaps convincingly in any other corner of the globe, but this team has lost important matches away from home.
In World Cup qualifiers, it lost to Brazil, 3-0, and to Ecuador, 2-0. At the Confederations Cup in Germany, it lost to Brazil, 4-0. Sure, the circumstances may be different, but the albiceleste must come out to attack, much in the way that Mexico approached it in the round of 16.
-Midfielder/forward Juan Riquelme must counter the impact that his counterpart Michael Ballack will have for the Germans.
-With the emphasis on an aggressive scheme said, Argentina must expect and withstand the barrage it will face at the outset of the game.
-Their overabundance of quality of forwards is overstated, as only two play at a time, and the most important thing is how well they play together. Argentina's pressing system requires a lot from its forwards, especially, so expect to see either Lionel Messi or "Carlitos" Tevez come on as substitutes.
Germany wins if:
-It mirrors the German squad of 1990 and not 1986. Ballack, like former star Lothar Mattheus, must combine playmaking duties with a healthy amount of shots on goal. Against Sweden, Ballack owned the midfield, distributing, supporting and firing at least eight quality shots from beyond the eighteen.
-Forward Miroslav Klose leaves his mark on this game. He played an instrumental role in both of Germany's goals against Sweden, but as the pretenders begin to peter out of the tournament, difference makers, like Klose, must perform.
-It continues to depend on many players to score, rather than just the forwards. A positive sign about the German attack is that at least six different players have scored thus far, with Ballack yet to join the fray. Balance is important.
-The German defense is weary of Argentina's on-the-ball pressure, as they will have much less time with the ball than they did against Sweden. The defense, however, matches well against Argentina's strong aerial game.
-Finally, the team must do this for "Bruno", the mountain bear recently killed along the German-Austrian border.
The Draw: Since 1986, when the World Cup went to a single-elimination format for the second round, Germany has two draws, with one (1986) in the quarter-final round. Argentina has gone to penalty-kick shootouts twice since 1986. Both times occurred in Italy '90, and it prevailed each time, over Yugoslavia and the host Italy, respectively.
Italy vs. Ukraine:
Friday, 3 p.m. EST
Background: Italy entered the tournament on a high, proving itself a serious contender after demolishing Germany, 4-1, in a friendly back in March. The Azzuri exercised their demons of starting slowly, and earned first place in the so-called "group of death". The Italians, though, shed their "unbeatable" perception in a game where they struggled to beat Australia.
Ukraine is making the most of its first World Cup participation. The team has disproved the theory that getting clobbered in one's first game spells elimination. After losing 4-0 to Spain, the team turned around and defeated Saudi Arabia and Tunisia handily, before drawing with Switzerland for 120 minutes. The team has certainly reversed its propensity to be porous in the back, and could make Italy's evening very difficult.
These two teams played to a scoreless tie in a World Cup tune-up one week prior to the tournament.
Italy wins if:
-It scores first. Of all the games, this one will likely be the least entertaining, and has the chance to drag on for a couple of hours. Although their attack has been more about pressure than generating nice flow, the Italians have shown that they could score through the air or through the ground.
-Its defensive wall maintains intact. Per tradition, the Italian defense has been virtually impenetrable. In fact, the only goal it has allowed came via an own goal against the US.
-The Italian side enters with a twenty-two match unbeaten streak.
-Since 1986, Italy has reached the quarter-finals three times, winning twice (1990, 1994), and drawing once (1998), before losing to host France in penalty shoot outs.
Ukraine wins if:
-It plays a flawless game inside its own eighteen yard box. Big teams get the decisive calls, as goes the old sports maxim, so there's no sense in placing its fate in the hands of the referee.
-It manages to congest the midfield, and forces Italy into bypassing midfielder Francesco Totti. Already Ukraine will miss striker Andriy Voronin, who is out due to injury, so it's offensive capabilities will be even more limited.
-It doesn't get baited into pushing forward too indiscriminately, and allow the Italians to play their classic counter-attack game.
The Draw: Italy has seen its fair share of draws in the second round of the World Cup. Since 1986, the Italians have tied four times. The most recent came in Korea/Japan '02 in a memorable round of 16 match against the host South Koreans, in a game marred by a controversial call that went against Italy. As mentioned earlier, Ukraine reached this match after being tied with Switzerland through regulation and overtime.
What to Expect:
If both of these games won't showcase the caliber and drama we'll see Saturday, at least they show promise for the semi-final round. However way you want to slice it, Italy will in all likelihood beat Ukraine, be it with a late minute goal, extra time, or in penalty kicks. There's this maddening determinism about World Cup soccer that dictates that teams like Ukraine bow out just about here. Simply said, this team has shown more often than not an immense inability to create goal-scoring opportunities. Granted, it rebounded nicely from its tournament-opening shellacking, but this is Italy not Saudi Arabia.
Bodog, for one, has prop bets where one can play which team will advance to the next round. Thus, one need not worry about Italy's propensity to make the outcome so difficult, even when it does seem rather predictable. Hence, I'd be willing to play the "Italy advances" bet rather aggressively.
The other game poses more difficulties to handicap, but I see an excellent opportunity with Germany at +155. These two squads entered the tournament from opposite directions, one won the qualifying tournament of South America, while the other staved off a civil uprising by beating the USA, 4-1, in a friendly.
On Friday, however, two different teams will take the pitch. A pre-tournament favorite believes it can win, but it knows the historical challenge that lies ahead. On the other hand, the pre-World Cup afterthought is on the rise, and enters this game on a very optimistic note. Germany has pressure to win, of course, but it's a team that is peaking, and not one that must win just because it must win every game, like say Brazil. Most importantly, Germany is playing well and has dominated every game-a trait of a champion!
To be played in historic Berlin Stadium, this will be the pivotal game of the World Cup. A closing appeal to the conspiracy-theory inclined: Do you really think that the host team will be eliminated after this round?
Stay tuned for a preview and thoughts for the Saturday quarter-final matches. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Doc' Sports picks service.