Friday, December 17, 2010
Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
I was initially sort of dreading this album's release. I'm not really big on concept albums, and when it comes to history, I've never really been all that interested in the Civil War. So when I learned that Titus Andronicus were following up 2008's 'The Airing of Grievances' with a sprawling epic of a Civil War themed concept album, I was skeptical. I was also very wrong to be skeptical.
This is not an easy album to love from the start. This is an album lover's album in the age of singles and one track downloads. Compared to a band like, say, the Drums, who's album has all of two songs that clock in at barely over four minutes, 'The Monitor' is 67 minutes long, and it does that in only ten tracks, two of which take up a combined 4:19. So that's eight tracks lasting an average of just under eight minutes long. This album has a lot going against it.
That said, I'm worried about Titus Andronicus. I'm worried about where they go from here. I'm worried that they won't be able to top this. 'The Monitor' is an ambitious album that sets a very high bar for itself, and manages to somehow exceed all expectations. They set out to create an album that tells the loose story of a young man's journey from his small New Jersey town to the bright lights of Boston, and they decided to tell the story using a Civil War motif. It's punctuated with Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis speeches, pamphlet and poetry readings. It's really kinda nuts.
But it's also a monumental achievement. It's almost not a collection of separate tracks so much as one long movement. The typical song starts slow, with an almost depressed sounding Patrick Stickles bearing his soul. Before long, they've built up to a raucous, angry, spittle flecked rant proclaiming at various points that "You will always be a loser", "You ain't never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start", and "It's still us against them". This is not an album you will instantly love. You need to spend some time with it. You need to work a little bit to love it. But the payoff is absolutely worth it. It's stuff that really plays incredibly well live.
It begins with a reading from Abe Lincoln's Lyceum address leading into the beat for the song that's my choice for the best track of 2010, 'A More Perfect Union'. The album culminates in the 14 minute long epic 'the Battle of Hampton Roads', named after the two day long Civil War naval battle of ironclad warships, in which the inspiration for the album's title, the USS Monitor, fought the CSS Virginia to a virtual draw. In the song, our beaten protagonist leaves Boston defeated, but determined to remain "...as much of an asshole as [he's] ever been".
Like I said, I don't know how they top it. But I can't wait to see them try. And even if they never tread this ground again, they've left us with masterpiece.
I'm going to post the official video for 'A More Perfect Union', and by all means, watch and get the visual, but they cut the song in half, and the second part is every bit as good as the first. I'd suggest clicking on the second vid to hear the whole thing.
A More Perfect Union, a less than perfect cut of the song.
A More Perfect Union
A Pot in Which to Piss
The Battle of Hampton Roads (all 14+ minutes of it)
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
I've gone back and forth between #s 2 and 3. #1 has been set for a while, but this album and the one that came before it are pretty much based on my whim at any given time. But whereas the Morning Benders released an album that hit me instantly AND grew on me, this one I've loved pretty much start to finish from day one.
Like many of the albums on my list, I think this one is really well paced. It starts out ambient with 'Earthquake' before dipping to the lo-fi 'Don't Cry', followed up by the brilliant 'Revival'. You get a chance to catch your breath on 'Sailing' before it picks up the pace again with 'Memory Boy' flowing into the second real standout 'Desire Lines'. It's down and up from there, as the first single, 'Helicopter', and 'Coronado' highlight the second half of the album.
The last 16 months or so have really been a breakout period for Bradford Cox. Building on the critical success of Deerhunter's 2008 release Microcastle, he released the second album of his solo project, Atlas Sound, to even more critical acclaim. It was Pitchfork's 18th best album, and landed two tracks in their top 100. And they continue their trend towards accessibility. Microcastle was more instantly accessible than their 2007 release Cryptograms, and Halcyon Digest take that even further, with a handful of tracks that should delight on first listen.
And while Cox continues to pad his resumé as a master songwrite, Lockett Pundt proves himself no slouch with the epic 'Desire Lines' and psych-rock 'Fountain Stairs'. This really should serve as their breakthrough album.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The Morning Benders - Big Echo
A friend of mine sent out an email about show these guys were set to play in October, and it reminded me that I'd been meaning to listen to this album. When I finally got around to doing so, I couldn't stop, and it's still a go to record when I need some music to fill the office. He missed their show, but I have him to thank for finally convincing me to listen to one of my favorite albums of the year.
Last year, Veckatimist by Grizzly Bear was one of my favorite albums. That album had a handful of really incredible songs, and a handful of somewhat forgettable songs. This album was produced by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, and it's a lot like Veckatimist in that it also has a handful of incredible songs. But the difference here is that there are no forgettable songs.
Half of this album hits instantly, and half of grows slowly. Songs like 'Promises' and 'All Day Daylight' make instant impressions, while slower tracks like 'Stitches' and 'Pleasure Sighs' build slowly to a crescendo. 'Stitches' is my favorite type of song. The type that sounds alright the first time you hear it, but makes a completely different impression in their live show, after which you'll never hear it the same way again. There are a few songs out there I've had this reaction to, such as 'Half the World Away' by the Whigs and 'All Hands and the Cook' by the Walkmen. And the opening track, 'Excuses', is one of the best live sing alongs you may ever get the chance to see. The video below is a great example of how that song is great in a big group. Watch it and imagine that in a club with about 400-500 people all singing along.
There's not much else to say other than that listening to this album is just a really enjoyable experience.
All Day Daylight
Monday, December 13, 2010
Pinko Punko posted this on Song of the Day earlier in the year, and if you click through to that link, you can see my love for this album evolve in the comments. There was a good three week period when I was listening to this album all the way through at least once or twice every day. It's an album that really grows on you, and while individual songs on the album are great, it's really an album that needs to be listened to start to finish.
The Besnard Lakes sit kind of at the intersection of prog and shoegaze. A couple songs, 'Glass Printer' and the album's best track 'And This Is What We Call Progress' sound like they could have come off one of the first two Catherine Wheel albums. They're a Canadian band whose main feature is the husband and wife pair of Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas. They're also a bit unique in that Lasek is spends much of the time singing in a falsetto, at a higher pitch than his wife.
Lasek also produced the album, and his experience shows. He's worked with other Canadian bands Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, and his ability at the soundboard is every bit as evident as his talent as a songwriter. A few of the songs are fairly long ('Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent', 'the Land of Living Skies', and 'Light Up the Night), but they all reward patient listeners with terrific payoffs. And of course, it's got the best Chicago themed song since Spoon's 'Chicago at Night'. It's really an album worth a few listens.
And This Is What We Call Progress
Last Train to Chicago
Whereas the New Pornographers, Spoon, and Broken Social Scene all more or less met expectations, the Walkmen rarely fail to exceed them. A bit more stripped down than 'You & Me', my choice for the best album in their catalog, 'Lisbon' finds the Walkmen once again doing what they do best. Lisbon provides a vehicle for Hamilton Leithauser's emotional vocals, Paul Maroon's deliberate guitar, and Matt Barrick's powerful percussion.
Leithauser is able to cut loose in his traditional fashion on the choruses of 'Victory' and 'Angela Surf City', the album's best track, and as good as anything they've done since 'The Rat'. He keeps an even pace on 'Woe is Me' and the opening "Juveniles", a track on which Ham sets the stage by crooning "You're one of us, or one of them". 'Blue as Your Blood' is like a version of 'On the Water' that doesn't reach a crescendo. And like some of the best stuff from their previous albums, Lisbon is littered with gems that require some additional mining, such as 'Torch Song' and the horn backed 'Stranded'.
Five albums in, the Walkmen may not be breaking new ground, but they've found their sound, and they're continually perfecting it. And I should mention, they are, in my opinion, the best touring act in the country. The first and third videos were taken at a show I attended in August (not by me, though. They were filmed by other people).
Angela Surf City
Sunday, December 12, 2010
The brother of a friend of mine from law school is one of the music writers for Chicagoist. He wrote an entry about these guys after I already had tickets to see them (they opened for Foreign Born), but before I had heard anything by them. That was the first of five Free Energy shows I saw this year.
There's a fine line between creative camp and parody. These guys walk that line as well as anyone. They're basically a band that plays a sort of late '70s semi-glam, reminding me a lot of Thin Lizzy. It has a way of sounding kind of cheesy (I hate that word), but they really make it work, especially in their live show.
And I should say, it's hard for me to separate a band's album from their live show. Obviously I haven't seen every band on this list, but it's not uncommon for me to come away from a show liking an album more than I did before the show, and vice versa. These guys got better and better every time I saw them. And it helps that this album was released on May 4th, just in time for summer. It's a terrific summer album. It's the type of stuff that should be blaring from every car stereo when the sun is out. Advertisers have noticed, with at least one of their songs being used in couple different commercials, including one for Flip video cameras. Here's a taste.
Free Energy (the song)
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I discovered Beulah along with a bunch of the other Elephant 6 related stuff probably back in 2002 or so, right after they released The Coast is Never Clear, probably my favorite Beulah album. They would go on to release YOKO in 2004 before calling it quits that year after a final tour (during which I saw them twice).
After a fairly long hiatus, former frontman Kurosky finally released his long awaited solo album, and if you like Beulah, then you probably weren't disappointed. He packs in tons of hooks, tons of instruments, and the clever turns of phrase that delighted Beulah's fan base. It's a pleasant surprise, and not exactly what I expected. But Kurosky has a real ear for pop melodies. This album has been criticized for being TOO stimulating, and lacking subtlety, but hey, I'm a guy who likes Los Campesinos!, so I don't always go in for subtlety. This is indie pop at its finest.
An Apple for an Apple
Dog in the Burning Building
Friday, December 10, 2010
Second of three Top 10 bands that I didn't see live this year. Never really listened to the Black Keys much until this year. There's a plethora of "Black" bands out there. Black Mountain, the Black Kids, the Black Lips, the Black Angels... I think in my head I've always just sort of lumped them all in with one another.
When you subscribe to a bunch of music blogs through a reader (like Google Reader), you tend to see the same stuff posted quite a bit. When I saw the video for "Tighten Up" posted a bunch of times, I finally watched it and listened to the song. So I streamed the album and found out that I really liked it. A few more listens and I was in love. Maybe because it's so different than everything else I listen to. There's not a lot of blues/soul music in my collection. The fact that two white guys from Akron do it so well is pretty unique.
I really like the way this album is paced. It eases the listener in with "Everlasting Light", then pounds away with "Next Girl", "Tighten Up", "Howlin' For You", and "Long Gone" before descending into emotional noise on "Black Mud". From there on out, it's a roller coaster peaking with "the Only One", "Sinister Kid", and "Unknown Brother" before slowing cruising through the finishing "These Days". This is an album as equally appealing when played as background music as it is when blasted from a car stereo. It really makes me want to dig into their back catalog.
And they do make really great videos.
Thursday, December 09, 2010
I hadn't even heard of these guys until Stereogum posted their list of the 40 best new bands of 2010, a list that they didn't even make. Someone in the comments mentioned them. Turns out I actually had tickets to see them at the time. They were playing a double bill (which is a regular show, except the bands are considered "co-headliners") with Surfer Blood at Lincoln Hall. So I looked into their stuff and found the 'Summertime' EP that was released in 2009. I liked it a lot, and finally listened to the album a few times before the show.
Turns out there was enough interest in the bill that they added a second 10:00 pm show in addition to the original 7:00 pm show. I was meeting up with some friends at the early show, and I had another friend interested in going to the late show. When I arrived, I was told that my admission to the early show was valid for the late show as well. The Drums were so good that I decided to stay around for both. Everyone I was with was there to see Surfer Blood. Everyone left much more impressed with the Drums.
There are some definite Smiths vibes on this albums, and just in case you weren't sure where their influences are from, you're more or less hit on the head with Morrissey in the opening line of the first track on the album, Best Friend:
You were my best friend, and then you diedMozzer couldn't have said it any better. But the '80s callbacks don't stop there. This album sounds like it was made by the children resulting from a love affair between Joy Division/New Order and the Cure, but only the really melodic stuff (not like Disintegration). This album is a lot of fun to listen to if you're a fan of music from that era, and since that was around the time that I really started paying attention, it strikes a chord with me.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Now, I typically listen to a band's album the most before I see that band in concert, which happened a lot this year. There are three bands in my 10 favorites that I did not see this year. Aside from them, I tried to pick albums that I kept coming back to long after I'd seen their show. I decided that was the true measure of how much I liked an album. So with that said here we go.
10th Favorite Album of the Year:
The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
I loved Funeral. I did not much care for Neon Bible. And I have a bit of an aversion to bands with huge popularity. So I was not expecting this album to be one of my 10 favorites. But I couldn't help it. I just really enjoy listening to it. I wouldn't call it a return to their Funeral sound, but they found a way to be more engaging, more melodic, and I really like the diversity of sounds on this album, from the rollicking piano in the opening title track to the driving guitar riff on City With No Children. Ready to Start and Sprawl II are real anthems. And if you haven't experienced it yet, download Google Chrome and watch the HTML 5 video for We Used to Wait.
This was an album that I wasn't expecting to like. I almost didn't want to like it. But I can't help it. I have a feeling I'm going to be listening to this one a lot over the next few years.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Good, but not quite top 10 - High Expectations Division:
- New Pornographers - Together
- Spoon - Transference
- The Apples in Stereo - Travelers in Space and Time
- Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer of the Void
- Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
- Interpol - Interpol
- Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring
- Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - the Brutalist Bricks
- Vampire Weekend - Contra
- The Whigs - In the Dark
- Wavves - King of the Beach
Apples in Stereo, Spoon, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers, Los Campesinos!, Vampire Weekend, and Ted Leo were probably victims of their own success. I had really high expectations for all of those albums, maybe too high. And while all had songs that I really love, none of them were good enough start to finish to rank higher.
Admittedly, the Whigs, Interpol, and Blitzen Trapper fell a little flat for me this year, though Blitzen Trapper did put on a really great show in August.
Albums I never really gave a chance to:
Broken Bells, like Teen Dream, starts out really great, and then I just kind of get lost in the rest, and sometime after I stop paying attention, the record ends. I supposed that's my fault, but hey, this is my list. As for Wolf Parade, I had the misfortune to get their album around a time where I had a bunch of shows coming up, and I usually spend that time listening to the bands I'm going to see. It was a problem of timing for them. I need to get back and listen to that album a few more times.
Unexpected Returns and Side Projects who released great albums in 2010:
- Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
- The Posies - Blood/Candy
- Blue Giant - Blue Giant
- Admiral Radley - Admiral Radley
- Everybody Was in the French Resistance, Now - Fixing the Charts, Vol. 1
The Posies just missed making my list, and indeed they were included on various versions. I really love the Ken Stringfellow songs on this record, and I think it's their best since Frosting on the Beater was released 17 years or so ago. Their show with Brendan Benson in November was terrific.
Blue Giant is the alt-country version of Viva Voce, one of my favorite bands. It's not my favorite musical style, but they pull it off well, and anything that includes lead guitar from Anita Robinson is worth listening to.
Admiral Radley is the fusion of Earlimart and Grandaddy, and the album sounds like, well, what you'd expect if you combined Earlimart with Grandaddy.
EWITFR,N is the side project of Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and Dyan Valdes (the Blood Arm). It's a response record, in which they respond to other pop-songs. The live show is part concert, part comedy routine.
Stuff that wasn't on my radar when 2010 began:
- Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
- Avi Buffalo - Avi Buffalo
- The Happy Hollows - Spells
- Sleigh Bells - Treats
- The 1900s - Return of the Century
Sleigh Bells, as mentioned yesterday, put out an album I really like a lot, but their live show was underwhelming. Still, I love the album, and in another year it probably could have made the top 10.
The 1900s suffered only from a late release. Their album is excellent, but their live show (last Friday) was absolutely phenomenal. One of the best translations of an album to a live show that I've ever seen. They sound like Belle and Sebastian, but on stage, they really crank up the energy. They're local to Chicago, so I really hope we get a lot of opportunities to see them play.
Finally, I can't think of a category for the Thermals, who I didn't discover until 2010 even though I'd heard of them before. I started listening to their 2009 album "Now We Can See" before the new album came out, and I fell in love with it. I like it a lot more than I like their 2010 album "Personal Life", which has some great tracks, though I don't like it much start to finish as NWCS.
Tomorrow: Day 1 of the main event.
Monday, December 06, 2010
- Shows attended (not including Pitchfork) - 46
- Sets witnessed (including Pitchfork) - ~90
- Lincoln Hall - 15
- Schuba's - 8
- Metro - 8
- Empty Bottle - 4
- Bottom Lounge - 3
- Riviera - 2
- Vic - 2
- Logan Square Auditorium - 1
- Reggie's Rock Club - 1
- Double Door - 1
- Subterranean - 1
- Free Energy - 5
- Titus Andronicus - 4
- Surfer Blood - 4 (if you include both sets at Lincoln Hall on 10/7)
- The Drums - 2 (see the Surfer Blood note)
- New Pornographers - 2
- Generationals - 2
- Blue Giant - 2
- Local Natives - 2
- Avi Buffalo - 2
- Teenage Fanclub - 2
- Cymbals Eat Guitars - 2
- October - 15 shows
- April - 8 shows
- August - 5 shows
- No shows in January for some reason
Tie between the Pitchfork sets for Sleigh Bells and Girls. Of bands I hadn't seen before, those were the two sets I was most looking forward to. Girls played a daytime set in some pretty intense heat, but the crowd was fairly large. They just didn't deliver. They found a way to play almost all down-tempo songs, and for some reason, they felt the need to play them slower than they play them on the album. Sleigh Bells set was short, but that wasn't unanticipated. They have one album, and it's not very long. The problem with their set is that it was way too quiet. To sound good, Sleigh Bells need to be ear-splittingly loud. My friend and I had a normal volume conversation during their set. That shouldn't happen.
Biggest surprise of the year:
A few come to mind, such as the Pitchfork set by LCD Soundsystem. Never really listened to them before that show, but they really delivered. The 1900s show at the Empty Bottle just this past Saturday ranks pretty highly here as well. Their new album doesn't come off as a real rocker, but they really cranked up the energy during the show. The Drums shows at Lincoln Hall in October were pretty great, too. Everyone I was with went to those shows to see Surfer Blood. Everyone left much more impressed with the Drums.
But for me personally, the best surprise was when Miles Kurosky to the stage at Schuba's backed by two former members of Beulah. With roughly half of the last formation of Beulah in attendance, I was able to get a few autographs on my setlist from their final shows in Chicago in 2004. The show itself was pretty great, too. Definitely worth missing Spoon.
Best single night of music - Non-festival:
April 30th. Cymbals Eat Guitars & Los Campesinos! at the Metro, followed by Generationals and the Apples in Stereo at Lincoln Hall. Perfectly timed so that I could see all four sets. The first time I had hit two different shows at two different venues in the same night (though I did it about three more times later in the year).
A close second goes to October 13th. I was invited to see New Pornographers play a small club set at lunch, which was recorded by WXRT. I followed that show up with a double bill of Surfer Blood and the Drums at Lincoln Hall. It was a night on which they were playing both an early show and a late show. I had a ticket for the early show, which I was told at the door would also be valid for the late show. I had some friends at the early show, and a friend at the late show, so I stuck around for both.
Best single day of music - Festival:
The Saturday of Pitchfork was the second best day of the festival on paper, but turned out to be the best day in terms of the quality of the sets. It started with Free Energy kicking off the day in 90+ degree heat at 1:00. Titus Andronicus followed that up at 3:00. Wolf Parade played a pretty solid set at about 7:00, and LCD Soundsystem ended the night in front of a huge crowd at 8:30 or so.
Top Five shows of the year:
HM) Brian Jonestown Massacre @ the Metro - 5/30: The last time I saw them, it was ridiculous. A two hour show with 10 songs, either ending with overly long and patience trying ragas, or extended rants from Anton Newcombe. This time? A near original lineup including Joel Gion and Matt Hollywood. Two hours, about 20 songs, and all of their best stuff from the Give it Back/Strung Out in Heaven period. Really impressive.
5) The Walkmen @ Double Door - 8/6: This was their Lollapalooza aftershow. And quite frankly, anytime the Walkmen play, there's a chance that their show will be in my top five of the year. They're America's finest touring rock band in my opinion, and the band most worthy of my entertainment dollar. They played a selection of material from their not-yet-released album Lisbon (since released), and now I can't wait to see them again having listened to the album lord knows how many times. I missed their follow up show in Chicago because I had tickets for Guided By Voices on the same night. I considered driving to Madison the next night for their show (a Thursday), but that was the same day as the Drums/Surfer Blood show.
4) Foreign Born/Free Energy @ the Empty Bottle - 3/5: I'd seen Foreign Born, who's Person to Person was one of my favorite albums of 2009, a few months earlier at the end of 2009 while I was in Los Angeles. They put on a great show, and they're perfect for a small venue. This was also the first time I saw Free Energy at the suggestion of an acquaintance who writes for Chicagoist. They were pretty great live. Good enough to see about four more times in 2010.
3) Deerhunter @ the Metro - 10/14: These guys were on my radar for a while, but I started listening to Halcyon Digest a few weeks before this show. I fell in love with it and snagged a ticket when I saw they were coming. The show lived up to the excitement generated by the album. They're now a can't miss band for me when they come to town.
2) Titus Andronicus @ Subterranean - 7/16: This was a Friday night show after the first evening of Pitchfork, which featured Broken Social Scene and Modest Mouse. T/A played a tiny club in sweltering heat, at least a good 10 hotter inside than outside on arguably the hottest weekend of the year. But they were incredible in that setting. Just feeding off the heat and energy from the packed crowed. I probably lost about 3 pounds in sweat during their set. It was the best of the four sets I saw them play this year.
1) The Fiery Furnaces @ the Empty Bottle - 6/18: A Friday night show while my family was in town for the Angels/Cubs series at Wrigley Field. I went to this show with my brother, a real trooper. He arrived in Chicago at about 7:00 am on the red-eye from Anchorage. He sat through a baseball game at 1:00 pm, went to dinner with our parents at 7:00 pm, and after a brief nap, was ready for this show around 11:00 pm.
As for the show itself, it was an hour of pure brilliance. I've never seen anything like it. They played for an hour straight, and I when I say straight, I mean straight. No breaks. Not even for applause between songs. It was like an hour long 25 song medley. And they were impressively tight. Not one missed beat or note all night long. I can't even describe how incredible that is based on what they played. Time signatures and keys jumped around like a kangaroo on meth. It was pure perfection. And to top the night off, while chatting with Eleanor Friedberger at the merch table after the show, she commented on my Super Furry Animals t-shirt. It was a really great night.
Tomorrow: Albums of the year - Honorable Mentions
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
June 16 Spain vs. Switzerland
June 16 Honduras vs. Chile
June 21 Spain vs. Honduras
June 21 Chile vs. Switzerland
June 25 Switzerland vs. Honduras
June 25 Chile vs. Spain
Key players: Fernando Torres (Liverpool), Xavi (Barcelona), Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Villa (Valencia), Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
Sometimes it takes the Spanish a little while to figure things out. In 1588 they had the biggest, baddest fleet in all of Christendom, the Spanish Armada. Itching for a fight, Phillip II decided to open this can of naval whoop ass on the island nation of England. After all, that saucy little tart Elizabeth I had the audacity to worship God the wrong way!
Off they went for God and country. 130 very big, very powerful ships arrayed against a bunch of tiny English schooners. In the summer they met off the coast of France. The Spanish were confident, but the English were faster. They whipped past the slower moving Spanish fleet, peppering it with cannon shot before the Spaniards had a chance to maneuver in the tight confines of the English Channel. The English went on to naval supremacy for the next 500 years, the Spanish went on to the bottom of the sea. The lesson for Spain? Sometimes small and speedy wins the race.
500 years later Spain figured it out. After decades of being soccer's biggest underachievers, the Spanish football team finally won a major tournament: the European Championships. They then followed that up by a 35 game unbeaten streak and the ranking as the world's #1 team.
That team is built on little speedy fellas who maintain possession. With all due respect to Leo Messi, the engine that makes Barcelona tick are Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, two diminutive, speedy central midfielders who pass the ball as accurately as Tom Brady to a wide open Randy Moss. They do the same for Spain. Behind them will sit Xabi Alonso, nicking passes from the other team and sending diagonal balls to Spain's attacking winger David Silva. To top it off, Spain have David Villa up front as one of the most in-form strikers on the planet, and pair him with Fernando Torres, one of the biggest, most talented strikers in the world. Spain is so loaded offensively, their biggest challenge is which superstar to leave on the bench, with Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas seemingly the odd little man out.
Defensively Spain is also impressive. Gerard Pique has grown from Manchester United misfit to Barcelona stalwart. He will marshall the defense along with captain Carlos Puyol, he of the long flowing blonde locks. The Spanish National Team's Bon Jovi look-a-like is the heart of the team, but a little slow. The fullbacks are good going forward, but a little suspect going back. It could be an issue. But if Spain gets in trouble, they have an excellent keeper, Iker Casillas.
There aren't too many weaknesses to Spain's team, as demonstrated by their stunning ability not to lose games. They were unbeaten in 35 before a plucky United States team parked the bus and hit them on the counter attack for a 2-0 win at the last Confederations Cup. Since then Spain has reeled off another 13 game winning streak. They are the favorites in the tournament and appear unbeatable.
It took Spain 500 years to grasp the concept that small and speedy sometimes beats big and powerful. It remains to be seen if they've learned the other lesson from the Armada: overconfidence can be a killer. Spain sauntered into the US match like it knew it was better and would play the Americans off the park, then they got complacent and by the time they realized they were in a game, it was too late. If they are to lose in this World Cup, it will likely be to a team like the US that is well organized and who the Spanish take lightly. Like the Swiss…
Key players: Philippe Senderos (Arsenal), Alexander Frei (FC Basel), Tranquillo Barnetta (Bayer Leverkusen)
Ever since the 1500s, the Swiss have been hiring themselves out as mercenaries. From the French Kings to the Holy Roman Empire to the Pope, they all called upon the Swiss to defend them from the various renegades and barbarians lining up to take their stuff. The Swiss were quick to oblige. If the price was right, they would hire themselves out to any tyrant, despot or Pope (redundant, I know). They even put on funny uniforms.
Why the Swiss when the Germans were right there! If any country wanted a bunch of lunatics who would follow orders no matter what, you would think they would naturally turn to the Germans. No, instead they took "Germany lite." The Swiss, like the Germans, are organized, defensive, follow orders, and never give up. Only they cost less and have nicer uniforms. Sometimes sartorial splendor goes a long way.
The Swiss like the Germans so much they hired Ottmar Hitzfeld as their head coach. Not a bad choice. Hitzfeld is one of the most successful managers in the world, and is two time world manager of the year. A German math teacher by trade, Hitzfeld has won 18 trophies in his time managing football teams. He is known as a great organizer and defensive specialist and brings those skills to the Swiss national team.
He will need all his formidable skills to get this team out of the group stages. This particular Swiss team is not heavy on talent. Phillipe Senderos has been talked up by the Swiss since his days in youth football, but he has never been able to make it on the big stage. Ever since he was picked up by Arsenal as a young defender off of his performances at FIFA youth tournaments, the eyes of Switzerland have been upon the young defender. But he has failed at every step, with particularly embarrassing moments at the hand of Didier Drogba. He's recently been shipped out on loan.
While Senderos represents the failure of the Swiss to develop young elite talent, Alexander Frei represents the old guard of failed Swiss talent. Always good, but never great, and never good enough. Frei is still a competent player, but never lived up to the potential of a world class striker.
Now both represent what Switzerland has become: solid, but not spectacular, organized to a fault. The Swiss never overwhelm you with skill, but they underwhelm you with boredom. It's what they have to do to win. They simply don't have the talent to compete with the Spains and Italys of the world. What they do have is an organized 4-4-2 that will stifle your attack while presenting a textbook attack of their own.
That textbook attack comes from wingers crossing the ball into strikers. Frei and Blaise Nkufo lead the line with Nkufo holding up the ball and Frei playing slightly off of him. Wingers Padalino and Barnetta stretch the outside and provide width for balls into the strikers, who score the goals. Very textbook, very organized, very Swiss.
The defense is even more textbook. Four defenders at the back with two strong center backs and two fullbacks who get forward to supplement the wingers by launching balls forward into the danger area. A veritable treatise on how to operate the 4-4-2.
And it works. The only way the Swiss compete is by out-organizing their opponents. Flash and dash don't rule the day in Geneva, no, it is sheer competence that makes them tick. It's like the Swiss guards all over again. Always in the right place, always doing their duty, never running away from danger. That's the Swiss team in a nutshell.
Of course, the if you look back at the history of the Swiss guard, you'll see numerous examples of them being massacred at the hands of invaders or usurpers. The French revolutionaries put 600 of them to the sword. Italian insurrectionists did the same. Look for this particular brand of Swiss defenders to hold out as long as they can, but to eventually meet the same fate as their forebears. Only without the really cool looking uniforms.
Key players: Wilson Palacios (Tottenham), David Suazo (Genoa), Maynor Figueroa (Wigan)
The United States owes Honduras. The turn of the 20th century saw a series of American invasions into Honduras in order to protect American fruit business interests. It seems the Hondurans working on the farms owned by American companies had become a little uppity, demanding outrageous things like a "living wage" or "water." How dare they?
In went the Marines. And then they went again. And again. The US invaded Honduras seven times in the first quarter of the 20th century, all to keep the price of bananas low. Bananas, the oil of the 1900s. Who knew?
Hondurans knew. They never forgot the occupation by the gringos; the repeated depredations, the housing of the murderous Contras in Honduras during the 1980s, the support of the dictatorial United Fruit Company in its never ending quest to keep Honduran citizens from earning more than a dime a day. It all added up to a multi-generational hatred of their neighbors to the north.
It took a man named Jonathan Bornstein to bridge the gap. On October 14, 2009, Honduras needed a miracle. It had defeated rival El Salvador 1-0, but required Costa Rica to lose to bitter rival the United States in order to advance to the World Cup. But the US trailed the Ticos 2-1 late in the game. The Americans were through to the World Cup no matter what, so their motivation was minimal…yet they kept advancing, kept seeking that tying goal. The game went into extra time and the minutes ticked down; Honduran hopes were rapidly fading when, out of the blue, American defender Jonathan Bornstein turned the ball into the back of the Costa Rican net. Honduras exploded. Los Gringos may not have made up for 100+ years of oppression, but they did leave a nice party gift on the way out this time. Bornstein need not worry about buying another drink in Tegucigalpa ever again.
Unfortunately for Honduras, there aren't likely to be too many Jonathan Bornstein inspired miracles in South Africa this year. Honduras are without much talent or tactical nous. They have two world class players in Wilson Palacios and David Suazo, but both are past their best and cannot be expected to make up for the lack of talent in the rest of the squad. Plus, Palacios is an injury concern.
If healthy, Palacios will roam the middle of Honduras' expected 4-4-2/4-5-1 as the designated hard man, with Suazo up front to stretch the opposing defense and take the occasional chance at goal. The rest of the team is simply not that talented. Recent friendlies have seen them drop a game to Romania while tying Belarus and Azerbaijan. Not exactly awe inspiring stuff.
Honduras is the only nation to go to war over a football match. It famously fought El Salvador in a three day war after it defeated them in a playoff to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. This time around, Honduras will be very lucky to still be fighting after its three days in the South African limelight. Expect an early exit from this bunch.
Key players: Humberto Suazo (Real Zaragoza), Alexis Sanchez (Udinese), Matias Fernandez (Sporting Lisbon), Mark Gonzalez (CSKA Moscow)
Like most South American countries, Chile was colonized by the Spanish and repeatedly used a battleground for the imperial ambitions of the European powers. Spain, the Netherlands, and the British repeatedly battled off the coast of Chile for the right to control the region's rich agricultural lands. While the foreign influence was eventually excised with the decline of Spain, it is still evident in recent Chilean history through such events as US backed coups (A US backed coup in South America? Go figure…).
Today the Chilean soccer team is under foreign influence. An Argentinean named Marcelo Bielsa became head coach with the mission of leading the Chileans back to the World Cup for the first time since 1998. He has done so by installing an attacking mentality and mixing that with tactical flexibility. That combined with a rich vein of young talent make Chile one of the dark horses in this tournament.
Bielsa's story is one of redemption. In 2002 he was in charge of a heavily favored Argentina squad many picked to win the World Cup. Instead, they floundered, going out in the group stages and even losing a game to England. Bielsa was vilified and quickly dismissed, his only opportunity came in taking over South America's worst team: Chile. In 2006 they had improved from dead last to seventh, but 2010 they were second only to Brazil.
They did it through Bielsa's 3-3-1-3 formation, which stretches the field and deploys wingers as marauders up the pitch, attempting to outnumber opposition fullbacks by combining with a wide striker to create 2 on 1's. It has worked. Chile is exciting and led by wingers Gonzalez and Fernandez ripping apart opposing defenses, and a defense that sits high up the field and dares you to go over its top.
Chile is in a group that will challenge those tactics. Any country that challenges Spain to a wide open game is asking for trouble, and Chile may revert to a more defensive style against the Spanish. Switzerland will park the bus and dare Chile to break it down. Honduras should be a non-factor and an easy 3 points. The key will be the Swiss game, with the Spanish a bridge too far, and the Hondurans a bridge too easy for everyone else in the group.
If Chile advances out of the group, it will be their best result since the 1960s. If they are to achieve that, it will be once again because of foreign influence. This time of the Argentinean variety.
Group H Predictions sure to go wrong:
June 16 Spain 1 vs. 1 Switzerland
June 16 Honduras 0 vs. 3 Chile
June 21 Spain 3 vs. 1 Honduras
June 21 Chile 1 vs. 1 Switzerland
June 25 Switzerland 2 vs. 0 Honduras
June 25 Chile 2 vs. 3 Spain
Spain and Switzerland advance
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
June 15 Brazil vs. North Korea
June 15 Ivory Coast vs. Portugal
June 20 Brazil vs. Ivory Coast
June 21 Portugal vs. North Korea
June 25 North Korea vs. Ivory Coast
June 25 Portugal vs. Brazil
Favorites: Brazil and Portugal
Key players: Julio Cesar (Inter Milan), Maicon (Inter Milan), Lucio (Inter Milan), Kaka (Real Madrid), Luis Fabiano (Sevilla)
Joga Bonito has been dead for years. The stereotype of Brazil as a bunch of fun loving, pass-happy, goal scoring machines has been wrong for the last two decades. To borrow a phrase from Rick Pitino, Pele ain't walkin' in that door…Socrates ain't walkin' in that door…Zico ain't walkin in that door…
But what a door they opened. From 1958 through 1986 the Brazilians played the equivalent of fast break soccer. They were the most skilled teams in the world, with the 1970 team revered as the greatest collection of players the game had ever seen. It seemed everyone else was playing a different game, a slower, crappier, uglier game.
Then everyone else got wise. The Dutch used Total Football to beat Brazil in 1974. Argentina piped them in 1978. The Italians famously upset them in 1982, with the French doing the same in 1986. Argentina repeated the trick in 1990.
By the time 1994 rolled around, there was an entire generation of Brazilians that had never witnessed their team win a World Cup. The game had changed, but Brazil had not changed with it. More and better tactics were being deployed. More skilled players were popping up all over the globe. The competition had advanced, but Brazil had not, still relying on their superior skill to pass teams to death.
But things had begun to change, starting in the center. Brazil began to rely more on size and strength to supplement their skill. The 1994 team was captained not by swashbuckling Romario, but hard-man Dunga. The team moved to a new system, one where the fullbacks provided the width by bombing down the wings, while the center of the team deployed two defensive midfield players to hold up the other team. Brazil had morphed into a defensive, counter-attacking squad right under everyone's noses.
And it worked. They won USA 94. They were beaten in the Finals of 1998 only through the sickness of Ronaldo and the brilliance of Zidane. In 2002 they beat Germany in the Final. The mojo was back. Only when Brazil attempted to revert back to a pretty offensive machine in 2006 was the team unsuccessful, falling once again to Zidane and France, but this time in the quarterfinals. That team, dominated by party boys and offensive flair players Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, and Adriano, was pelted with stones and fruit by disgruntled fans. Apparently Brazilians now enjoyed winning more than fancy passing.
That may be why they chose Dunga to coach this World Cup team. The centerpiece of the transition from slick passing to hard tackling Brazil in the 90s, Dunga immediately purged the team of the Adrianos, Romarios, Ronaldos and Ronaldinhos of the world. In their place stood Gilberto Silva, Lucio, and Julio Baptista. Bigger, faster, stronger, harder. Winners united in a common goal of winning a World Cup.
And win they have. Brazil won the South American qualification, including thrashing Argentina 3-1 in Buenos Aires. It won the Confederations Cup by coming back to beat a game USA team 3-2. All on the back of stifling defense and a dynamic counter-attack.
That attack is led at the top by Luis Fabiano, Sevilla's silky smooth goal scorer, but the creative engine lies behind him in Kaka, and around him in Brazil's bombing fullbacks: Maicon and Michel Bastos. They provide width for the team and spread out the other team's defense making it possible for the goals to come from Fabiano, Julio Baptista, or Robinho.
The strength of the team lies in defense. Julio Ceasar is the best goalkeeper in the world. Lucio is one of the best central defenders. Gilberto Silva provides experience, as does Juan. Brazil will soak up your pressure, and then drill you on the counter, working the ball to their freight train fullbacks and then forward to Kaka and finally, Luis Fabiano.
It's not very attractive to non-soccer fans. It's certainly not the style people come to expect from Brazil. What it is is effective. A weakness? There aren't too many. The most glaring is the lack of a creative attacking player to replace Kaka should become injured (as he often is) or prove ineffective (as he was for large parts of this season in Madrid). Dunga's faith in Julio Baptista off the bench tries the patience of many Brazilians eager to see young starlets Neymar and Pato, or old masters like Adriano or Ronaldinho get a run in.
None of that will happen under Dunga. He is a team oriented, results driven coach, and Julio Baptista has delivered for him, Kaka is the last man to ever go drinking, and Lucio would head butt through a brick wall if it meant preventing a goal. If ever there was a team that resembled its coach, it is this one. What they don't resemble is everyone's fantastical idea of Pele and Socrates leading the samba line. What they do resemble is the likely tournament champion.
Key players: Jong Tae-Se (Kawasaki Frontale), Hong-Yon Jo (FC Rostov)
In 1966, a small, isolated nation shocked the world in the World Cup. No, not England…North Korea! The DPRK went to England that year as an unknown quantity. No one knew who they were, much less what they would do. Certainly they would be going back home soon.
The first game followed the script as the Soviets destroyed the North Koreans 3-0. But in the second game, things seemed to change. North Korea tied Chile 1-1. That set up a match between the upstarts from Pyongyang and the heavily favored Italians. The Azzuri sauntered in overconfident (and likely hung over), fell behind in the first half, and couldn't breach the North Korean's defense in the second. DPR 1, Italy 0. When they went back home, the Italians met their heroes at the airport and pelted them with rotten fruit. It remains the only time they have ever been knocked out in the first round of a World Cup.
Unlike Italy, North Korea has never been knocked out in the first round of the World Cup. That's mostly because they haven't been back since 66. In 2002 they were close, but when a decision went against them in a home match versus Iran, the spectators pelted the field (and the Iranian team bus) with stones. FIFA banned them from hosting any games following that and North Korea failed to qualify.
No such stone-inspired flame outs this time around. The DPRK secured qualification on June 17, 2009 by tying Saudi Arabia and advancing on goal difference. The DPRK was back! There is no confirmation that Kim Jong-Il set off a nuclear firecracker in celebration, although there is also no confirmation that he didn't. You never know with that guy.
It may take nuclear intervention for North Korea to advance in this tournament. Despite the presence of Jong Tae-Se ("the Korean Wayne Rooney") and Hong Young-Jo (the only Korean player who plays outside of Asia), the North Koreans lack punch. That might be because they play such a defensive style. It is not uncommon for the North Koreans to play 5 at the back. Like their brothers to the South, they employ an all out style of running and pressuring their opponents. According to their head coach, they qualified not on the back of their defense, but rather due to the Great Leader's care for the team. Whatever the Great Leader was doing worked as they recorded 10 shutouts in qualifying.
There is a better chance of North Korea opening the tournament in pink tutus than them pitching 3 shutouts this time. They were drawn into the "Group of Death" with tournament favorites Brazil, the most highly regarded team in Africa in the Ivory Coast, and a team led by the best player in the world not named Lionel Messi in Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. All three will be licking their chops at playing against the North Koreans. It's hard to gauge the power and influence of the Great Leader, so you never know…but let's face it, we do know. North Korea won't be around for long. A victory would be scoring a goal, much less winning a game.
Key players: Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Yaya Toure (Barcelona), Kolo Toure (Manchester City), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea), Didier Zakora (Sevilla)
Didier Drogba burst onto the world soccer scene for Chelsea 6 years ago. Born and raised in France to Ivorian parents, he eschewed the call of his birth nation and instead opted to play for the homeland of his ancestors. After a slow start at Chelsea, he developed under then-coach Jose Mourinho into arguably the best striker in England and an international force to be reckoned with on and off the field.
Drogba does some fine things on the pitch as the most powerful player in the Premiership, but he does even finer things off it. The story of the stoppage of the Ivorian civil war has been told numerous times in numerous ways, but it always centers around the actions of Didier Drogba. The man in the middle of Chelsea's attack was in the middle of stopping rival political factions from attacking each other. He used the power of the national team to bring the two factions together. Soon thereafter a coalition government was formed and the violence subsided. A veritable Bono…only with actual, you know, results.
For the first time in a lifetime, a nation united will be watching the Ivory Coast this June. Unfortunately, they may not be watching much of Mr. Drogba. During their last friendly, Drogba's elbow was dislocated by a kick from a Japanese defender (a defender who was born in Brazil, one of Ivory Coast's opponents…let the conspiracy theories begin!). He immediately left the field and underwent an operation. He insists that he will be healthy and ready to play. We shall see.
While Drogba has united the country, apparently he cannot unite his team. The Ivory Coast is a notoriously fractured squad, with two distinct camps of players on the squad, neither of which likes the other. Their soccer federation isn't helping. They fired their Bosnian coach after a poor African Cup of Nations campaign and hired serial wandering manager Sven Goran Ericksson. With only a few games to evaluate his squad, the credible Ericksson may not be able to achieve the cohesion he desires.
If the Ivory Coast do decide to set aside their differences and play together, they are a formidable force going forward. Led by Drogba up front and Saloman Kalou and Gervinho alongside, the Ivory Coast favor a 4-3-3. While they have three quality strikers, none of them provide much width, and their best players in midfield (Yaya Toure and Didier Zakora) don't help much in providing width either, preferring to play through the middle. If there is any width to be had, it will come from marauding fullbacks Tiene and Eboue.
The problem with that strategy is that it will further expose the Ivory Coast's extremely vulnerable defense. Eboue is talented, but moreso going forward and with his notorious temper is a red card waiting to happen. Tiene is his mirror image on the other side. In central defense, Kolo Toure is well past his prime and was poor this season for Manchester City. Sitting in front of them is the recently benched Didier Zakora. If the Ivory Coast is to win any games, it will be by outscoring their opponents.
They must start by outscoring Portugal. This will be tricky, as Portugal has great wing players who can take advantage of the Ivory Coast's weakness on the outside. Plus, Portugal's central defender Ricardo Carvahlo has experience dealing with Drogba every day, as they both play for Chelsea. And that's a healthy Drogba, not a Drogba with only one good wing.
Wings will be key to this year's Cup. Specifically Drogba's arm and the Ivory Coast's outside defense. The Ivory Coast have the continent's best player and its most talented team. But internal strife, disorganization, a difficult group, and untimely injuries may have undone Les Elephants before the tournament even starts. If there is one man who can unite a national team, it would seem to be the man who united an entire country. If he does and the Ivorians make it out of the group, look to the entire continent to rally behind them.
Key players: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Liedson (Sporting Lisbon), Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea), Simao (Atletico Madrid), Pepe (Real Madrid)
In 1969, Dr. Laurence Peter developed a management treatise entitled "The Peter Principle." The main theory of the book is that some members of an organization are promoted as long as they work competently. Eventually, those people are promoted to levels where they are no longer competent, and there they remain. In time, Peter states, every post in an organization will be occupied by an employee incompetent to carry out his duties.
In the Godfather, Tom Hagen was Don Vito Corleone's consigliere. He advised the family leader on legal matters and strategy for running the family business. Tom never pushed to be the #1 man, knowing that he never could take the place of Vito's three natural born sons (Tom being adopted). So he settled into a role as the #2, always there to offer good advice, but never a threat to usurp the power of the leader, as he is loyal to the end.
Carlos Queiroz arrived in Manchester in 2002, having been appointed as Sir Alex Ferguson's #2 at Old Trafford. Before that, he had been the failed manager of the Portugese national team, and the failed manager of Sporting Lisbon (by Lisbon's standards). When he arrived, Manchester United trailed Arsenal by a country mile and it appeared Arsenal would win their second Premier League title in a row at the expense of Ferguson's United. But Queiroz seemed to revitalize the Old Scot and his team. United went on a late season tear while Arsenal faltered, with United winning the title on the penultimate day of the season.
Queiroz was hailed as a genius, and off to Real Madrid he went. After 10 months as their head coach he was fired and it was back to Manchester United in 2004. Back in England, Jose Mourinho had taken over at Chelsea and usurped United's position in the League. Chelsea won back to back titles and seemed poised to take another. Queiroz is credited for securing United's back line and developing its 4-5-1 formation that saw it win the Champions League for the first time in almost a decade and three straight Premier League crowns. Once again, his service as a #2 was invaluable.
Once again he was promoted to a #1, this time as manager for the Portuguese national team. He took over a team led by one of the most dynamic wingers on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese were in a bit of a transition following the retirement of some of their "golden" generation, but they still possess some of the best talent in the world in attack and defense.
Queiroz immediately began to run them into the ground. Placed in a World Cup qualifying group with Denmark and Sweden, the Portuguese were seen as the overwhelming favorite. They immediately lost at home to Denmark, conceding 3 goals in 3 minutes. Then, the unthinkable happened as the tied lowly Albania…at home. A late flurry saw them qualify for the playoffs by beating Hungary and Malta while the Swedes faltered. In the home and home series they drew Bosnia and defeated them 1-0 over both legs.
Portugal was saved. Barely. Then they drew the Group of Death with the Ivory Coast and Brazil. Almost as worrying for the Portuguese will be a North Korea team that parks the bus in front of goal. After a recent 0-0 draw with Cape Verde, anything is possible with this squad.
But what a squad it is. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo on the outside, the do it all winger is one of the fastest players on earth in addition to being one of the best free kick takers this side of David Beckham. He is good with his head as well as his feet, and is only one season removed from one of the greatest goal scoring seasons in Manchester United history.
With such a dynamic player, why do the Portuguese struggle to score? Because they play him in a position that makes it easier to mark him and more difficult for him to get the ball. Queiroz refuses to put Ronaldo up front, instead relying upon Brazilian import Leidson to do the scoring. Ronaldo remains on the wing, sending crosses into a player that has trouble converting them. Leidson, meanwhile has taken over the typical role of a Portuguese striker: 1) he's from Brazil, and 2) he can't score.
The rest of the team is excellent. Ricardo Carvalho is getting older, but is still a talented center back, as is his partner Bruno Alves. Pepe is coming off of knee surgery, but when healthy, he provides a center back's height and strength with a midfielder's agility as he roams in front of the central defense.
The problem is not keeping other teams from scoring, it's scoring themselves (ironic that a team with noted playboy Cristiano Ronaldo has trouble scoring). Even without the injured Nani, the Portuguese should be scoring goals for fun, but the defensive Queiroz refuses to alter his plans, refuses to adapt to his team's talent to counter its weaknesses. It is well within the realm of possibility to see the Portuguese go through against a divided Ivory Coast and an impotent North Korea (it also would not be surprising to see a 0-0 draw with North Korea). It is even possible to see them getting past Spain.
But it is not likely with Queiroz in charge. A man promoted for competence as a #2 has proved incapable of success as a #1. The ultimate consigliere has shown himself to be incapable as a capo. Portugal has the talent to beat anyone and is a legitimate dark horse, but given the man in charge, they're likely to be swimming with the fishes not too long after the group stage.
Group G Predictions sure to go wrong:
June 15 Brazil 4 vs. 0 North Korea
June 15 Ivory Coast 1 vs. 2 Portugal
June 20 Brazil 3 vs. 2 Ivory Coast
June 21 Portugal 0 vs. 0 North Korea
June 25 North Korea 0 vs. 3 Ivory Coast
June 25 Portugal 1 vs. 2 Brazil
Ivory Coast 3
North Korea 1
Brazil and Portugal advance
Monday, June 14, 2010
June 14 Italy vs. Paraguay
June 15 New Zealand vs. Slovakia
June 20 Italy vs. New Zealand
June 20 Slovakia vs. Paraguay
June 24 Paraguay vs. New Zealand
June 24 Slovakia vs. Italy
Favorites: Italy and Paraguay
Key players: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Giorgio Chellini (Juventus), Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina)
You know you’ve made it in the world when your name becomes an adjective. Niccolo Machiavelli made it in 16th century Italy and is still making it today. Back then, Machiavelli wrote a tight little treatise called The Prince, wherein he advised a young monarch-to-be to act ruthlessly and practically in ruling his territory. The ruler should cajole where necessary, kill if he has to, but above all, must never lose sight of the ultimate goal: victory. Machiavelli has never had a more devoted follower than the Italian national soccer team.
The marriage of Machiavellian political thought with soccer strategy has been very successful. The Italians have won as many World Cups as Germany, and trail only Brazil in the race for the most victorious nation. How they do it is…well…Machiavellian. If you’re losing and need a hand ball from the other team to get a penalty, well…you shoot the ball at their hand. If you’re losing and you need to remove the other team’s best player from the game…well…you call his sister a whore and wait for him to head butt you. If you’re having trouble scoring a goal…well…you flop around like a fish and wait for the referee to grant you a penalty.
The single-minded pursuit of victory led the Italians to popularize catenaccio, a defensive system that locks the opponent down and waits for them to make a mistake. Then, once the mistake is made, the Italians capitalize, break at full speed, and take their chance at goal. It isn’t very pretty, but it is effective. The Italians don’t really care what you think about how they get to the goal, just as long as they get it.
Machiavelli was born in 1469, which makes him slightly younger than much of this Italian team. After a disappointing European Championship campaign in 2008, Italy decided to sack its young coach Roberto Donadoni and re-hire the man who led them to the World Cup in 2006: Marcello Lippi. Lippi immediately decided to get the band back together. Out went any suggestion of new blood. Giuseppi Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano need not apply. Why mess with success? If you weren’t on the 2006 team, you might as well not even bother to try out.
Instead Italy brought back Fabio Cannavaro, the player of the year in 2006, but who hasn’t been close to world class since. Mauro Camorenesi, Gennaro Gattuso, and Gianluca Zambrotta are all warriors of a bygone age, well over 30 and past their primes. Yet, they all have prominent places in this Italian squad.
It is a squad that will find it difficult to play against younger, faster teams. Mexico passed them off the park in a recent friendly. It is also a squad already devastated by injury. Andrea Pirlo is the man who makes Italy go offensively. He sits in front of the defense and sprays passes around the field. He’s so good, the position he plays has been named “the Pirlo role.” Take that Machiavelli.
But Pirlo is already injured, and without him Italy will find it more difficult to score. If they are to get to the goal, it is likely to come from a broken play, a set piece, or a mistake by the other team. Then the professional poachers up front in Gilardino and Iaquinta can bang in a cross or a well played pass.
A bigger problem lies in defense. Four years ago Fabio Cannavaro was a good but overrated central defender who played a vital role in Italy’s championship. He parlayed that into a ridiculous contract from Real Madrid and proceeded to stink out the joint for the next four years. Unfortunately for Italy, Marcello Lippi seems to have slept through that time because Cannavaro is back in central defense. Fortunately for him, he has Daniele de Rossi in front of him, Gigi Buffon behind him, and Giorgio Chellni next to him to make up for his slow pace and inevitable errors in defense. With Cannavaro in such a central role, Italy may be hard pressed to live up to their defensive pedigree.
Like the Germans, one must never count out the Italians, no matter how old, slow or uncreative they may seem. Lesser Italian sides have seen younger, flashier teams come and go before and dispatched them 1-0 with regularity. It is quite possible that this team could do the same. With a favorable draw in the group stages, they could easily make it to the knock out round and face perennial underachievers like Portugal or Spain, lull them to sleep, and then beat them on one free kick.
It is hard to imagine them getting much further than that. Given the age of their team and the altitude in South Africa, half their team could be in a wheelchair by the round of 16 and dead by the semi-finals. But if there is one team that could win a game with 10 dead players and one lively striker, it is Italy. All it takes is one calculated dive in the penalty area, one flop to get a red card from the other team, one well placed kick to the other team’s star player’s groin. In Italian soccer winning, like politics, has no relation to morals. Machiavelli would be proud.
Key players: Roque Santa Cruz (Manchester City), Paulo da Silva (Sunderland), Nelson Valdez (Borussia Dortmund), Lucas Barrios (Borussia Dortmund), Oscar Cardozo (Benfica)
Salvador Cabanas got a late start. He was a midfielder by trade for much of his early career, bouncing between teams and never making his mark. Then, with his career going in neutral, he was moved up front, an unusual position for someone so short (5’8). It immediately paid dividends. Cabanas was the top scorer in the Chilean league in 2003, top scorer in Mexico in 2006, top scorer in the Libertadores in 2007 and 2008. He was a man on the rise and in demand. English teams were scouting him. Spanish teams inquired for his services. He was ready to lead the line for his country in the World Cup.
On January 25, 2010, Salvador Cabanas walked into a bar in Mexico City and did not walk out. What happened between the time he sauntered into a nightclub and 5 in the morning is disputed. Cabanas says he was trying to stop a robbery, others say he was playing Billy big boots and got what he deserved. One thing is certain, Cabanas walked in as a man on top of the world and was carried out with a bullet in his skull.
A bullet that still remains in his skull, as it is too close to his brain to remove. Not surprisingly, Cabanas will not be in the Paraguay squad for this year’s World Cup. Given his age and, you know, the fact that he has a bullet in his skull, likely rules Cabanas out for any World Cup in the future. It is unfortunate, because his absence likely rules out any long run for Paraguay in this year’s tournament.
One might scoff at the idea of Paraguay making any sort of challenge, yet they were one point away from beating Brazil and topping South American qualifying this year. They play an open style of football when they can, but also are very adaptable, and will revert to a defensive shell when necessary. They beat Brazil and Argentina in qualifying, giving as good of a game on the road as they did at home.
And then their best scorer was shot in the head and it all changed. Without Cabanas, Paraguay must rely on old Roque Santa Cruz up front. Santa Cruz has been non-existent at Man City and has not been healthy all season. Alongside him will be young playmakers Nelson Valdez and Lucas Barrios, both of whom ply their trade in Germany. If fit, Oscar Cardozo could also play up front (hopefully in place of Santa Cruz), and he is one of the most in-form strikers in Europe this season. With these playmakers, Paraguay often display a 4-3-3 attacking style game that pressures their opponents. They control the ball with skill like a typical South American team, playing defense by obtaining possession and not letting the opponent get the ball.
But Paraguay are no pushovers, they are adaptable. They also revert to their traditional hard, defensive brand of soccer when the occasion calls for it. Justo Villar captains the defense from his position in goal. The Villareal keeper is an excellent stopper. Da silva and Caceras are decent central defenders who mimic Paraguay’s traditional style of heavy legged, rugged defenders.
Look for Paraguay to use that style in its first game against Italy. Knowing it has weaker teams in Slovakia and New Zealand in its next two games, Paraguay will likely play for the draw against the favored Italians, open it up against the overmatched Kiwis, and then play pragmatically against the Slovakians. It could be a recipe for success. However, if the Paraguayans do fail to make an impression offensively at this year’s cup, the blame will not fall at the feet of the Italians or Slovakians. Rather, the wrath of Paraguay will likely turn north, to a small discotheque on the outskirts of Mexico City, where the hopes of a country for glory were struck down with one small bullet to the skull.
Key players: Ryan Nelson (Blackburn)
The Kiwis are the worst team in the World Cup. The motto of North Korea, South Africa, and Algeria is “thank God for New Zealand.” They boast a grand total of one player who plays in Europe’s biggest leagues, and no players who ply their trade for the biggest clubs in those leagues. Moreover, they start at least one player who plays in the New Zealand league. Yeah, I didn’t know New Zealand had a league either.
And yet, the little engine that could made it to the World Cup, knocking off Bahrain in a playoff by shutting them out in New Zealand. This is probably because the “little” engine isn’t so little. The Kiwis are a big bunch who would probably rather be playing rugby. Heck, they sometimes play soccer like they’re playing rugby. Big, physical, and intimidating, the Kiwis will knock you around on the field for 90 minutes.
That mentality is no better represented than in the form of their giant central defender Ryan Nelson. Nelson – who used to play in MLS, holla! – now plays for Blackburn in England. Blackburn are a team known for knocking the you-know-what out of whomever they play, so Nelson fits right in. Expect to see lots of fouls, lots of elbows, lots of other player on the ground….and lots of goals conceded.
Don’t expect to see too many goals scored. New Zealand’s aim for this tournament should be getting a shot ON goal, much less a shot to go in the goal. This is true even though they start three forwards up front. If they do manage to score, it is likely to be from Scott Smeltz, their best striker. Smeltz currently tears up the A-League in Australia. The competition is likely to be a bit better in South Africa.
Seeing as this is a New Zealand preview, federal law requires that I mention either Lord of the Rings or Flight of the Conchords. Since it would be difficult to fit Jermaine or Brett (Brit) into a soccer tale, we’ll have to go with Frodo. Think of New Zealand not as a young Frodo Baggins, making his way through Mordor to destroy a ring and defeat the might Sauron. No, think of them as the fatter, older, slower, less athletic Hobbit who was left in the Shire to tend Frodo’s fields while he went off the save the world. New Zealand has about as much of chance to make it out of its group as Frodo does of landing that big NBA contract. 3 and done for the Kiwis.
Key players: Marek Hamsek (Napoli), Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), Stansilav Sestak (Bochum)
Not only do individual countries have styles, so do regions of the world. South America tends to be more skilled and technically sound. Southern Europe is the same. Northern Europe tends to be more organized and defensive. Asia blends South American technique with Northern Europe organization. Africa tends to have neither but has a lot of big, fast dudes. Eastern Europe simply tends to beat the crap out of you.
Slovakia is no exception. In fact, when Czechoslovakia split up some twenty years ago, all the skill seemed to fly to the Czech side of the border. Without the Pavel Nedveds of the world, Slovakia reverted to Eastern European form, they beat on you until you quit. Slovak must be Cyrillic for beat down.
All of this generalizing is a little unfair. Slovakia do have a couple skill players. Marek Hamsik is the best known. The midfielder currently plays for Napoli in the Italian league and will be pulling the strings as an attacking midfielder. He led Napoli in goals this season with 12 and he will need to duplicate that type of form if Slovakia are to make any noise.
Other than Hamsik, Slovakia have little up front. Literally. Their most talented player might be winger Mirosalv (Butter) Stoch, the 5’8 Chelsea youth product is quick, fast and gets things done. Just don’t ask him to score with his head.
The defense is a little larger. Led by Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, Slovakia has not conceded more than one goal in their last four games. Unlike Stoch, Skrtel is 6’3 and an imposing figure at the back. However, unlike Stoch, he’s never healthy for very long. The rust may not show in warm-up games against Costa Rica, but it might be evident with Italians and Paraguayans running at you.
The Slovaks will line up in their traditional 4-4-2, with occasional forays by the fullbacks supplementing their attack up the middle through Hamsek. This will be their attempt to provide width, however, any team that focuses on their wingers at the expense of the middle will be making a mistake. If Slovakia is to score, it is likely Hamsek who will do it. They don’t have much else.
What they do have is traditional Eastern European aggressiveness and steel, forged in the fires of communist oppression. The thought of losing a tackle in midfield to a little Frenchman is not much of a bother to people who grew up under the gray boot of Russia. In Eastern Europe you fight for what you get, which goes for a ball in midfield as much as a meal on the table. If the Slovaks are to win a game or two in this tournament, it will be because they fought harder for their meal than their opponents. Look for them to go home early and hungry.
Group F predictions sure to go wrong:
June 14 Italy 1 vs. 1 Paraguay
June 15 New Zealand 0 vs. 1 Slovakia
June 20 Italy 1 vs. 0 New Zealand
June 20 Slovakia 1 vs. 2 Paraguay
June 24 Paraguay 4 vs. 0 New Zealand
June 24 Slovakia 0 vs. 0 Italy
New Zealand 0
Paraguay and Italy advance