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World Cup

2010 World Cup: Preview of Semifinals, Best and Worst of Tourney

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So ... who's had the worst 2010 World Cup through the quarterfinals?

Your candidates:

1. Nigeria ... which was so disappointing it's own government threatened to ban the team from competition the next two years.

2. Nike ... which had a viral hit(*) in the "Write the Future" campaign, which quickly devolved into "Write the Fail" as every single player in the ads dropped by the wayside, unless you're counting the half-second cameos by Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta. At this point I'm guessing around July 20 we'll get a report that Wayne Rooney was last seen snapping photos at Springfield's famed "Mystery Spot."

(*) Arguably this beach soccer Nike ad from 1998 is just as bad, featuring Ariel Ortega, Ronaldo, Ibrahim Ba, Kanu, Christian Vieri and Luis Enrique etc. On a semi-related note, has any movie lost its luster or feel quite as dated now as the "Austin Powers" series? Saw the start of one on TBS Monday morning and couldn't help but think *this* was funny?

3. France ... which humiliated itself, pouting its way out of the World Cup and causing the national congress to hold inquiries into what went wrong. On the plus side, nobody on the French team shived coach Raymond Domenech in the tunnel when nobody was looking, so there's that at least.

4. The match officials ... who've screwed up goal line goals, offside calls and even penalty kicks, although that decision is mitigated since the official in question was from CONCACAF so it's par for the Jack Walker course. (Nobody's been booked three times yet, though.)

5. The (English) Premier League ... which has lost some luster as the presumed world's top domestic league with most of its brightest stars posting World Cups to forget.

My answer?

No. 5, our beloved Premier League, which has totally flopped down in South Africa.

Here's the raw statistical numbers. The Prem began the 2010 World Cup as the best represented league with 117 players -- 16 percent of the total in South Africa -- including 93 on teams other than Fabio Capello's England.

With four four teams left -- Uruguay, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain -- the Premier League is down to a mere seven players. Five are on the Dutch side (Johnny Heitinga, Dirk Kuyt, Nigel de Jong, Robin van Persie and Ryan Babel). Three are on Spain: Fernando Torres, who's yet to score; Fabregas, who's only contribution thus far is pushing over David Villa in the celebration of the latter's game-winner Saturday vs. Paraguay; and backup keeper Pepe Reina who's spent the tournament on the bench, presumably knitting a neck wrap for the coming season at Liverpool.

It wasn't much better in the quarterfinals.

Ghana had four players -- Kevin-Prince Boateng (since sold to Lazio), John Mensah (on-loan at Sunderland from Lyon, which probably wants him back), Richard Kingson (Wigan's No. 3 keeper) and John Pantsil, who actually does play at Fulham.

Paraguay only had two Premier Leaguers -- Roque Santa Cruz (gwah!) and Paulo da Silva. Brazil had just one -- backup keeper Gomes -- or two if you want to count Manchester City on-loan rapscallion Robinho. Germany, once Michael Ballack got hurt, was entirely Bundesliga based, though Jérôme Boateng is on his way to Manchester City.

Argentina did get some quality, at least vs. Mexico, from Carlos Tevez, while Maxi Rodriquez was forgettable, especially vs. Germany in the quarterfinals.

Beyond these numbers, the Premier League's brightest stars all had World Cups to forget.

France's marquee English based players -- Patrice Evra, William Gallas and Nicolas Anelka -- sulked their way through matches and nearly staged a riot during training.

Didier Drogba, who was valiant returning from injury, couldn't inspire the Ivory Coast past Brazil or Portugal.

Rooney and the rest of the England players were poor and all out of sorts.

Even guys like Jozy Altidore, Yakubu and Nemanja Vidic saw their form dip at the World Cup.

And consider this: Cristiano Ronaldo, who's certainly been influenced by the Premier League, was a man on an island for Portugal. There certainly won't be any statues erected in his honor after the 2010 tournament, now will there be?

Ironically, the waves Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid from Manchester United last summer, coupled with Kaka leaving AC Milan for the Bernabéu can still clearly be felt as we hit the 2010 World Cup semifinals.

The mega-stars move to Madrid meant that both Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder were deemed surplus parts, moving to Bayern Munich and Inter Milan respectively. Those two teams just so happened to contest the Champions League finals in May at the Bernabéu ... again ... (cue the Zinedine Zidane voice) ... the irony.

The Dutchmen's great form have helped spur the Netherlands into their first semifinal since 1998.

But it's not just the Netherlands who've benefited from the Real Madrid surplus sale.

Germany's marquee club -- Bayern Munich -- rode Robben's heroics into the final. More than that, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, armed with Robben and Franck Ribery on the flanks, moved Bastian Schweinsteiger into a central midfield role.

And although he's not scoring the goals like Miroslav Klose or Thomas Mueller -- both of Bayern -- if the Germans walk away champions on July 11 in Soccer City, it's Schweinsteiger who just might earn the tournament's Golden Ball.(*)

(*) If not, "Basti" can always take comfort in the fact he's assumed the mantle of No. 1 worldwide spokesman for processed meat treats, now that Randy "Macho Man" Savage has been put out to pasture by Slim Jim. Enjoy this clip for "Bifi" if you haven't already.

The way these semifinals have broken UEFA president Michel Platini might need a little alone time. It's not just that there are three European semifinalists, but they all have done it without the influence of the Premier League.

Spain at this point is essentially Barcelona, sans Lionel Messi. The Catalan giants have in the last five years beaten both Arsenal and Manchester United in the Champions League final.

Then you have Uruguay, who's best player -- Diego Forlan -- was a famous flop at Manchester United, before setting goal records at Villareal and then leading Atletico Madrid to this year's Europa League crown.

There's no doubt after the World Cup, the Premier League -- namely Manchester City and Chelsea -- will try to import some of these star players.

Yet the underlying weaknesses of the Premier League once it leaves the fields of the British Isles certain can be called into question. Are their cracks in the Premier League's ivory tower when you pair what's transpired in South Africa to the 2010 Champions League semifinals?

Is there a reason for the Premier League's poor showing in South Africa? Are the players exhausted by the grinding nature of the league? Would a winter break salve over all the problems? Does the rough-and-tumble, start-stop nature of the league not apply to international competitions? Is it all a coincidence?

Hard to say. The evidence is there to be picked apart.

Then again, the Prem's raison d'être isn't to produce World Cup stars.

However you want to look at it, it's a problem for England, which again is left to wonder -- especially at the youth development level -- if it can compete with the world's best even with a league that's regularly produced three of the four Champions League semifinalists until this season.

It's a bigger issue for Premier League boss, Richard Scudamore, too. When he tells us all that flowery stuff about the EPL being the best in the business? Well, we might raise an eyebrow on those declarations.

All I know is that come August, I'm glad I still pay a few bucks to get GolTV every month. For certain I'll consider a fun, atmosphere-packed Bundesliga game on a Saturday morning over another dreary West Brom/Liverpool matchup. (Sorry 'Pool fans.)

Uruguay v. the Netherlands

During the World Cup I've had a hard time putting down Jonathan Wilson's "Inverting the Pyramid," which is perhaps the first book that deals with the ancient history of soccer in a readable manner. Somehow I've been fascinated daydreaming in my head the way the game used to be played, with the 2-3-5 formation and its lack of dribbling. Or just to see players in heavy wool uniforms and droopy mustaches.

I just finished up a chapter on Uruguay and its success at the 1930 World Cup. I've watched the YouTube clips, it's umm, well, it makes those grainy clips of Babe Ruth circling the bases at 55 miles per hour look futuristic.

Anyway, trying to draw some relevance between Uruguay's wins in the 1930 and 1950 World Cups is grasping at straws. It's almost like Army in college football.

That said, this Uruguay team has been solid, whether or not its been inspired by the old Charrúas ghosts of Montiviedo. La Celeste won the wildest game in recent memory, out-gutting Ghana in the Luis Suarez "Hand of God: The Next Generation."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that with Suarez out, Diego Forlan needs to be the inspirational leader like he was at Atleti in the Europa League. If one man is capable of carrying a team, he appears to be that guy. (And will that be a ticket back to England?)

Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez is likely swapping out Suarez for Sebastian Abreu, leaving Forlan in a playmaker, withdrawn role.

Maybe the bigger issue for Uruguay is the health of captain Diego Lugano in the center of the defense. Ghana, with it's lack of a true forward, couldn't expose Uruguay. Left back Jorge Fucile is out too, starting a real lineup merry-go-round for La Celeste.

There isn't much beauty in what Uruguay is doing this Cup. It's finding a way to get the results. In the knockouts they slogged past South Korea in the rain, then out-lived Ghana in penalties. In a way, they're like an NCAA No. 12 seed on a nice little magic carpet Cinderella ride. Nobody is remembering the first, say, 38 minutes, but we're remembering the buckets in the last few minutes.

Now does that ride end against a talented Dutch team that hasn't exactly played the beautiful, "Total Football" of years past, but is getting results, too?

The Dutch are now on a 22-match unbeaten run, but they're not exactly lighting the world on fire despite a surplus of attacking talent. Perhaps they're leery of putting on a show after Robben hurt himself trying a back heel pass in an pre-World Cup tune up over Hungary in Amsterdam.

Sneijer, Robben, van Persie, Kuyt haven't emulated the interchanging Johan Cruyff, Arie Haan, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens attacks of the 1970s. But why should they? Unlike Euro 2008 when this team set the world on fire in the group stages, only to be knocked out by Russia.

What the Dutch have been is remarkably consistent. They've scored two goals in four of their five wins, totaling nine overall. They've only given up three -- just one to Brazil came in the run of play.

The Netherlands does miss starting right back Gregory van der Wiel and midfielder Nigel de Jong. Bert van Marwijk does have some options, he can slide Johnny Heitinga to back, and pair Andre Ooijer and Joris Mathijsen in the middle of defense or play Khalid Boulahrouz. Demy de Zeeuw likely slides into midfield, unless -- in a revolutionary move -- van Marwijk plays just Mark van Bommel in a holding role, and inserts Klass-Jan Huntelaar as center forward, giving van Persie somebody to play off. This probably clogs the already crowded lanes inhabited by Sneijder and Robben, though. And if van Marwijk really wants to gamble, he could dust off Rafael van der Vaart and play him alongside van Bommel.

The Pick: This game pits the two most talismanic players of the tournament -- Forlan and Sneijder -- directly against each other. Forlan will be missing his main running mate, while Sneijder has plenty of help all across the field. Don't think the Dutch have been playing possum, but if they are going on to win the World Cup, they're due a breakout. Dutch are probably due a dud, but unless they lose focus or Forlan puts on an all-time performance, this should be fairly academic. Plus, if you put stock into these sort of things, the football Gods will have their revenge for the Suarez handball incident. ... Netherlands 2, Uruguay 0.

Germany vs. Spain

Oh boy.

If the 2006 World Cup is our template, this should be the apex of the tournament just like Italy's extra time win in the semifinals over Germany in Dortmund.

Throw in the fact this is a rematch of the Euro 2008 final and it's truly a football lover's dream.

Do we put stock in that game two summers ago in Vienna?

Spain is pretty much the same team, plus this time it's got David Villa (injured in 2008) and much narrower midfield -- Iniesta and David Silva were outside midfielders in Luis Argones' traditional 4-5-1.

Germany has a lot of the same faces are a very similar 4-2-3-1 formation. The spine, though, has undergone a tonal shift. Gone are keeper Jens Lehmann (presumably to the nearest mental hospital), the lumbering Cristophe Metzelder, midfielders Thomas Hitzelberger, Torsten Frings and captain Michael Ballack.

If you recall that match, Spain only won 1-0 on a goal from Fernando Torres. Yet Spain seemed to toy with Germany, dancing around the huffing-and-puffing Germans with ease. There was no doubt Spain were the cream of the crop in Austria.

Now, though, the roles have changed. Germany is the darling of the tournament playing an attacking brand of counter-attacking football that's being hailed as the future, just as Spain possession tic-toc game was two years ago.

Spain is now the team doing just enough, or specifically getting enough from Iniesta and Villa to grind out 1-0 wins over Portugal and Paraguay.

For the first time since perhaps the Group Stages of Euro 2004, Spain finds itself the underdog in tournament. Remember, Spain probably were better than France in 2006, only to get brushed aside by Zinedine Zidane during his final flourish on the world stage.

The fascinating questions fall to Vincente Del Bosque. Would he risk benching Torres? Does he bring in Fabregas? Does he dust off Jesus Navas and David Silva to put Germany on the back heel?

Spain could play its possession game without lighting up the scoreboard and get away with it vs. Portugal and Paraguay for a simple reason. Though each team -- on paper -- had quality forwards, those players were isolated without support of a midfield link. German striker Miroslav Klose has Mesut Ozil, Lucas Podolski and until his yellow card suspension, Thomas Mueller helping shoulder the load.

Not sure where Joachim Loew goes to replace Mueller. Toni Kroos seems like the candidate. Maybe Stefan Kießling. This is definitely an issue for the Germans, who've made only two starting changes all tournament -- Jerome Boateng replacing Holder Badstuber and Cacau playing when Klose was suspended.

Either way, Germany have made England and Argentina pay for their shoddy defensive lines. We've seen Spain be exposed and the Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique pairing can be prone to mistakes under enough pressure. Mueller might be suspended, but the Podolski-Philip Lahm left-side tandem should filet the massively arrogance and overrated Sergio Ramos. Think of it as the scrappy contestants on "American Gladiators" knocking a (Spanish) gladiator(*) down a peg with or without a pugel stick.

(*) Ramos, with that flowing mane, looks like Malibu. That's what I'm getting at.

The Pick: Even without Mueller, I think Low figures out a way to attack Spain and make it pay for it's sometimes lax defending. After watching what the German backs did to shut down Argentina, I feel pretty good about them and keeper Manuel Neuer, although leaving Iniesta with as much space as they gave to Angel di Maria might now prove to be the smartest idea of all time. Spain hasn't found its groove in this Cup and a driven German team isn't exactly about to give them the time and space to awaken from their slumber. ... Germany 2, Spain 1 (a.e.t.)

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