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Saturday, December 10, 2005
Well, the draw is done. Here's what it looks like...
Group A: Germany, Costa Rica, Poland, Ecuador Group B: England, Paraguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden Group C: Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia & Montenegro, Netherlands Group D: Mexico, Iran, Angola, Portugal Group E: Italy, Ghana, USA, Czech Republic Group F: Brazil, Croatia, Australia, Japan Group G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo Group H: Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
Not bad, actually. Group E is a veritable Group of Death, and Group C would be too but for Serbia & Montenegro. Ivory Coast aren't half bad either. Group F is tricky because there are three strong teams, but Brazil should be ahead, so it's a race between the other three for second spot. Groups A and B look clean, Groups G and H are decent, and Group D is sufficiently straightforward. Let's see what the other reactions are going to be soon. gambitch [
Friday, December 09, 2005
Today's the day of the World Cup group draw. Everyone's got his or her guesses regarding the groupings that will be drawn by a host of celebrities including, surprisingly enough, Heidi Klum. She's German, allegedly.
We all know how the group pots work - if you don't, look here - but the real question is who's going to end up where? Here's my guess - just be warned that I'm likely to be wrong.
Group A: We know that Germany are going to be the seeded team here, but who would we pick for its opponents on the opening day? It would be tempting to put Michael Essien here just so we'd see whether he would try his horror tackle on Liverpool's resident German Dietmar Hamann, but that is a really poor way to open proceedings. I'm going for Angola, because it would be sweet for them to continue their fairytale by getting the opening game at the Allianz Arena, no less. Putting Holland in the group would well and truly spice things up, given the history between them and the hosts. Rounding off the group is Iran, a logical enough choice given the stories the Iranians who play in Germany can tell their teammates.
Group B: Between the Waldstadion (Frankfurt), the Weserstadion (Bremen) and the RheinEnergie (Cologne), I'm not sure these are the best venues of the bunch. Rather untasty, so I'll suggest the unthinkable and put Italy here. As long as they are here, I'll let Paraguay join them, since Cesare Maldini used to coach the Paraguayans. Ukraine should be an interesting proposition for the Italians, who will be familiar with Andriy Shevchenko, though less so with everyone else. Just to round it all off, how's about a dash of Oriental spice in the form of South Korea? Yes, I can hear them, the groans of the Italians who don't like seeing the Koreans after the last World Cup, not to mention the deadly duo of Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo, who came so close to totally wrecking the Milan train last season. Fortunately, Liverpool finished the job for the ex-PSV pair.
Group C: There's no real reason in this, so let's go for Argentina coming here. Joining them, I'd go for Tunisia, just for the fun of it. The serious pick is in the third pot, where I would fancy Switzerland to get used to some really unfriendly play, having survived Turkey in the playoffs. Trinidad & Tobago might fancy a party in the midst of such daunting opposition; then again they would fancy a party whatever group they're in.
Group D: Suppose for the sake of argument that France get to play here. The venues aren't the best, but Gelsenkirchen isn't poor by any means. A tough toss, but between France's previous colonies, Ivory Coast might have a couple of things to prove, especially in the case of Didier Drogba. Croatia are not what they used to be, but their presence will be interesting, certainly. For the sake of petty argument, especially given how they almost fell out in the build-up to the Iraq war, there's nothing quite like having the USA square off with Les Bleus.
Group E: This is utterly childish, of course, but we all know that E is for England. It's between them and the Brazilians in terms of getting the Group of Death, but let's just say that we're lucky and we get a bit of both. That would put Australia nicely into this group, as well as something a little tasty for Sven Goran Eriksson in the form of his native Sweden. Rounding the list off, we have the joker of the pack, Japan. You never know - they might do well in this one!
Group F:Brazil are definitely here. That is pre-arranged. Let's say we make life tough for them by introducing Portugal into this group, just so they will run into Luis Felipe Scolari early while both teams can still make it to the next stage without killing each other. Complicating matters just a wee bit would be the presence of Ghana, where Essien may be eager to stamp his class among the samba dancers both sides of the Atlantic. Putting Costa Rica up here may be a bit soft, but let's not make life too tough for the defending champions, eh?
Group G: I'm having Spain here. No particular reason, but this group feels like a good spot for the Spanish. Joining them among my picks is Ecuador, who frankly are not that outstanding anyway. Poland is an interesting option, near neighbours to Germany that they are. Will Jerzy Dudek redeem himself after missing out on so many games at Liverpool? At least he may be comforted in the knowledge that Saudi Arabia have not been that good since their World Cup debut. Spain had better not muck up in a group like this!
Group H: Ah, yes, Mexico. They're the lucky ones given all the adaptation time when I made the draw. In exchange, they get the tough assignment of playing the Czech Republic. This could well be the group where the seeded team doesn't have that strong a chance to come in first. Serbia & Montenegro had a decent qualifying campaign, but can the likes of Mateja Kezman prosper up front, especially against former Chelsea teammate Petr Cech? If all else fails there is always that game against Togo, who will probably be happy just to be playing in Munich in their first game.
There's my call. They might all be wrong, though, except Germany and Brazil of course. Let's see what the real draw yields! gambitch [
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Well, so United are out of Europe even before Christmas.
The immediate reason, of course, is that Benfica beat us 2-1. One more goal to equalize, and one more point, would have made all the difference. No doubt, that's a point that Stassi Schroeder would have appreciated.
But looking further back, there are many reasons why we got into this mess in the first place. In theory the group should have been, well, not very tough. Villarreal, Benfica and Lille. Finishing ahead of two of these three should have been manageable. But it never happened. As the stattos will no doubt revel in telling everyone, United didn't score enough. Which is true; we've not had the same kind of fluency in front of goal.
But is there something more than that? I didn't watch last night's game, at least not all of it, but looking at a number of the games earlier on, what was striking to me was how United simply didn't have the same kind of fluency in all departments. Ruud and Rooney were willing triers, and Park Ji-Sung was busy aiming to prove that Sir Alex didn't buy him to sell shirts in Korea. But there was something missing in the entire team, the ability to switch approach between awe-inspiring marauding and systematic probing. We never really saw either. The entire operation just seems awfully disorganized.
The defence wasn't much better overall. Gone is the era of Schmeichel, Bruce and Pallister, where people just shout each other senseless to keep each other on their toes. Try convincing me that Rio Ferdinand does any of that shouting. He's just not the sort. And van der Sar is closer to firm but quiet.
You can argue that we've missed Heinze, or we've missed Giggs, or something like that. You can argue that Scholes hasn't been himself this year. Or you can point to Rooney's two games out thanks to a stupid red card against Villarreal in the opener. But in the past, star players were missed but replaceable as long as everyone understood the subtle shifts in system. We've not quite had that this year. In fact we've not quite had that in quite a few years now.
As a case in point, look at that trio in central midfield that goes by the names Keane, Scholes and Butt. United didn't always play all three together, but on the occasions when there are only two of the three on the field, it's amazing how one substitution has the effect of two. The man around which the switches are made is Keane, who is such a strong box-to-box man that he can adapt to attacking or defensive duties with nearly seamless ease. Keane and Butt is a strong defensive midfield, where Keano does the marauding up front. Switch Butt for Scholes, and suddenly Keane becomes the defensive midfielder and Scholesy runs riot.
Right now our central midfield doesn't have that option anymore. To be fair, we've lost that option since the day Butt was sold. But Keane's ability to switch with such comfort has long passed with age and a bagful of injuries. Unfortunately, we don't have an adequate direct replacement. Alan Smith is an honest lad, but he's more an attacker than a defender. We don't have that kind of defensive cover, at least not until Quinton Fortune recovers from injury. John O'Shea is too defensive, Darren Fletcher is more inclined to pass, Liam Miller was hazy, and neither Eric Djemba-Djemba nor Kleberson ever really got a proper chance to prove whether they could fit into either role.
Ultimately, we have to recognize that this decline was a long time coming, and it's the consequence of the team lacking that intelligence to go with whatever amount of heart our front folks can muster. It's not something that can be solved by getting one man - although Keane did a manful job in his time. Too many personnel changes means that the playing approach has to shift, and it hasn't shifted enough to catch up.
Is it the end of the road in terms of a golden era? Quite possibly. Is it doomsday? Oh, how you jest. Remember that, in the year we won our second Double - the "Kids' Double" - we also crashed out of Europe very early. On that occasion it was to an even more unknown team. Anyone remembers what happened to Rotor Volgograd since 1995? Yeah, me neither. United fans must remember that the club has gone through some tough days only a decade ago. We've come full circle since then, or almost. United were having a league trophy drought for 26 years in the latter half of the previous century. It sounds an awfully long time ago, but most of us were born during that dry period. It's a matter of context.
I'm still going to support United. I'm still going to wish that the team will do its best in the search for more trophies and glory. Sometimes we're not going to make it, but when that happens we're going to have to sit down and look at how to fix things, rather than wallow in pain and agony and point fingers. And even if we resort to wallowing in pain, remember this: the majority of fans of other clubs will be sharing in our pain too. Football's like that; it's not possible at any given time that everyone is a winner.
The silver lining to all this? Looking at the list of 16, at least I'm glad that no one country is in a position of runaway dominance. Italy, Spain and England, the countries with four representatives at the group stages, all have three left in the mix now. So everyone's had casualties. We are therefore guaranteed that it won't be a two-nation fight come the quarters. Some variety is good, actually.
We will now concentrate on the league. And at least a second-spot finish. gambitch [
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Pretty much as expected, it's back to playing horribly as usual at the Sunday football. Or at least, losing as usual.
And the game might have had a bit of a bad effect. The short description is that I got hit in the head, on the arms and even in other places by plenty of stingers. And I still conceded goals anyway.
In fact, I think things got so bad that my left arm - mostly the hand - is feeling kinda numb right now, as if there isn't quite enough blood going there. On the other hand, it could have something to do with some odd pimply growth that's in my left axilla. I'm not sure if it's got anything to do with the lymph nodes, although I do note that I get these pimply things in various places from time to time.
Of course, it could also have something to do with what I did after the football (and dinner). Apparently the biggest TV event of the year was on, and I completely avoided coming into contact with it by, well, finding a quiet spot and reading comic books. Goes to show how little I care about the stuff served up on TV in my locale. gambitch [