Yesterday, in my preview of the Germany-Argentina match I wrote, “One way or the other, I like the Germans in this match, but they probably will have their hands full.” “Hands full” turned out to be an understatement; “one way or the other” was about right. Germany won on penalty kicks after 120 minutes of deadlock. This was one of the most interesting soccer matches I’ve ever seen, and I’d love to write an essay about it. Perhaps the time is better spent looking ahead to tomorrow’s matches, however.
The first match is England-Portugal. In terms of talent, this one is about even, but Portgual has played better than England throughout the competition and to me is the favorite. The match-ups aren’t bad for England, though. If Gary Neville plays and is fit, he and Ashley Cole may be able to limit the damage caused by Portugal’s great wingers. And Terry and Ferdinand should cope pretty well with Portugal’s lone striker, Pauleta. Portugal thrives on the runs of Deco and Maniche from midfield into the penalty box. However, Deco is suspended for tomorrow’s game. England nonetheless will probably stick with a fifth midfielder which may help negate Maniche but will impair its own attack. Thus, a low scoring match seems likely (a fairly safe bet in any competitive World Cup match). History suggests that England will raise its game to the level of this quality opponent and then find some heart-breaking way to lose.
The other match, Brazil-France, features the last two World Cup winners. More than half of Brazil’s starters were mainstays for the 2002 champions and (if memory serves) five of France’s starters featured in 1998. Therein lies the problem for France — I’m not sure that the older players, Zidane in particular, will match the fitness and intensity they displayed in their inspired win over Spain on Tuesday. Moreover, Brazil is a much tougher opponent, and for all of their flair, a far less naive one.
Brazil appears to have a weakness, though. As one of the ESPN commentators has noted, there is too much free space for opponents up front between center backs Lucio and Juan. The commentator (Marcelo Balboa, I think) makes it sound like it’s the fault of the center backs. In reality, the problem is that Juan must range almost all the way to the touch line to cover for the maruading Roberto Carlos for whom left-back is largely a mailing address. France will have the opportunity to exploit this problem through the exciting right winger Ribery. If he pulls Juan over, then the middle could open up for Henry and Zidane. That said, I still like Brazil.