There's probably no easier way to say something that to just blurt it out.
I can't remember the last time I was excited for a soccer game where I didn't have a dog in the fight as much as Saturday's Argentina/Germany 2010 World Cup quarterfinal.
As a nuetral you couldn't ask for more. The two best-attacking sides, who just so happen to be long-standing rivals (1986, 1990 finals), meeting in a game that you can make compelling arguments for each side winning. (I waffled for hours before deciding.) Throw in the best player in the World -- Lionel Messi -- plus Diego Maradona, Joachim Loew's "Pick", a non-hateable, multi-ethnic German team and this is what the World Cup is all about.
Uruguay/Ghana is a compelling toss-up, while Brazil/Netherlands is a great game on paper and another World cup renewal of acquaintances.
The only team keeping the quarterfinals from going 4-for-4 is Paraguay, who's been solid but is should be over-matched by Spain. In fact, you could make a good argument for all seven teams aside from Paraguay that they deserve to be there. Chile, Mexico or the U.S. would sign up for that line of thinking, right?
Sorry Larissa Riquelme.
So without wasting any more of your precious time, here are my rambling, semi-coherent takes on the four games coming up this Friday and Saturday.
Part of me wanted to come up with some sort of scale to rate the game, so I caved to the old Internet standby of taking two disparate items -- soccer and Quentin Tarantino flicks -- and merged them. There's no bad quarterfinals and there aren't any bad Tarantino films. There are bad QT acting performances, but his work in the director's char is flawless.
Check out the big brain on you, if the title of this post now makes a little more sense, too.
Painted into a corner here.
The Dutch were my pre-tournament pick, but after watching what's transpired the last month in South Africa, the Oranje are about to get squeezed, Samba style. (Rimshot!)
This isn't an indictment on the Netherlands. Nor am I reading too much in the tizzy Robin van Persie threw when he was substituted out in the final 10 minutes vs. Slovakia, the first case of classic Dutch petulance at the World Cup.
It's just that Brazil is good.
Scary, nearly unbeatable good.
Throughout my time watching the World Cup intently, I've never exactly ridden Brazil's proverbial jock. For one, I loathe front runners with the same kind of burning intensity Kenny Powers does toward training and fundamentals. Next, in the first World Cup I can fully comprehend back in 1994, Brazil weren't exactly the most lovable bunch, what with the ungraceful goal-poaching of Romario, the elbow swinging of Leonardo and well, the crew cut from hell named Dunga.
But here's that Dunga again, stern, tactical Dunga who's forged a team that has no conventional weak spot, other than the referees secret agenda to hand out yellow cards to Kaka.(*)
(*) Kaka is secretly the most infuriating man in world soccer to some folks, even more than the overt villainy of Cristiano Ronaldo. Here's Kaka, born to a well-off family, clean cut, plays for Jesus, marries to childhood sweetheartt, etc. And he's got the game to back it up and Champions League and World Cup winners medals resting in the trophy case. Yeah, that could rub some people the wrong way. Enough for a yellow card conspiracy? At this point you can't put anything past FIFA.
What makes 2010 Brazil so fearsome is that it doesn't need Kaka -- arguably the best player in the starting XI -- to be superman every match, like say Ronaldo does for Portugal or (in theory) Wayne Rooney was supposed to do for England.
This Brazil team knows its roles and shuts it mouth, or else faces an elbow to the chops from captain Lucio, perhaps the most pious hardman to grace the World Cup pitch. Consider him Dunga's extension to the pitch. Unrelenting, tough and pretty damn good at what he does. (Again, why would Bayern let him go to Inter last summer?)
And unlike most other teams down in South Africa, Brazil doesn't even need to mask what it's doing. Lucio is marshaling the defense. Gilberto Silva is providing a defensive shield in the midfield. Maicon is going to rampage up the right wing. Kaka is going to trigger the counter attack. Luis Fabiano is going to score the goals and Robinho(**) will provide a little ol' fashioned joga bonito.
Clean and simple, like the haircut Dunga rocks.
(**) Maybe the Nike "Write the Future" curse clips Robinho and Brazil. But do we count it since the ad featuring the on-loan Manchester City attacker wasn't in the original opus?
How can the Dutch stop this Brazil team that has the size and strength of a Range Rover but also the grace and speed of a Ferrari?
1) Out-Brazil, Brazil. Meaning sit back and absorb as much pressure as possible, hoping Maarten Stekelenburg stands on his head. Maybe Wesley Sneijder finds Arjen Robben on another long run and catches Michel Bastos out of position against the run of play. Maybe van Persie pulls a little something magic if given half a yard of space.
2) Hypnotize Nigel de Jong the night before the match, convince him the yellow of the Brazil jersey is the same as the yellow of Stuart Holden's hair. (Chances are Brazil wears blue, rendering this point, moot.) Perhaps his crunching, leg-breaking tackles take the Brazil players off their game. As it stands, joking aside, de Jong is going to need to play the game of his life, stopping the runs from Kaka, Ramires and Robinho from the center of the field.
3) Hope that Julio Cesar re-aggravates his balky back injury, forcing Gomes into the lineup. Gomes reverts back to the Gomes from Tottenham 2009 and the classic Brazilian Achilles heel of poor goal-keeping comes back into play.
4) Convert a penalty or Sneijder whips in a beautiful free kick from a foul in front of goal. Better yet, Sneijder is possessed by the spirit of the world's foremost homeless wizard -- Zinedine Zidane -- and takes over the game like the French legend did in the 2006 quarterfinal that sent Brazil packing.
5) Hope by all hopes this game finishes 0-0 or maybe 1-1 and the Football Gods remember the year 1998 and the Dutch win in penalties.
Perhaps the cosmos does indeed align and Brazil lays a stink bomb for the first time since October 2009 in a qualifying loss to Bolivia at altitude in La Paz and meanwhile the Dutch uncork a blinding performance of which we haven't yet seen in this World Cup.
It's just that the Dutch seem penned into the 4-2-3-1 formation. We've seen what they can do -- possess and score a few nice goals. All it takes is one mistimed pass in their own half from Mark van Bommel or Joris Mathijsen and Brazil will pounce, get a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 and goodnight the lights.
Part of me would like to see the Dutch change things up, maybe even bring Klaas-Jan Huntelaar on and start two forwards, perhaps to confuse Brazil. Or even move Dirk Kuyt closer to goal. Bert van Marwijk needs to do something tactically, otherwise Brazil will methodically pick them apart.
Those are a lot of ifs.
Almost like asking lightning to strike the Hill Valley courthouse twice in the same night.
It could happen. Will it?
Doubt it, however.
The Pick -- Brazil 1, Netherlands 1. Dutch win in penalty kicks making amends for the 1998 semifinal. (God help me for being consistent.)
Tarantino rating -- "Reservoir Dogs." There's too talent on the field, much like the crew assembled by Joe Cabot, for this not to be a good game. It could, however, go wrong for the Dutch, who much like "Mr. Orange" might find themselves bloodied and beaten by the final whistle.
Curse you Ghana.
It would be a whole lot easier to loathe the team that knocked out the United States had say, John Mensah pulled out a prison shank (***) and stabbed Robbie Findley repeatedly in the kidneys last Saturday in Rusteburg during Ghana's 2-1 win over the U.S. in the round of 16.
(***) Considering the state of FIFA officiating and its apparent bias against the U.S., this could have happened with Mensah getting away with it.
As it currently stands, it's hard to work up a lot of hatred for this honest, hard-working, athletic Ghana squad.
One story I'd love disseminated from South Africa is a back story to Milovan Rajevac, the Black Stars' coach. You really couldn't have a less impressive resume. I'll give you 1,000 guesses (without Googling) to come up with his previous post before coming to Ghana.
The answer: Borac Čačak a middling Serbian club.
Sports are funny like that, a non-descript Serb leading a group of 20-something Ghanaians to the precipice of becoming the first African team to make a World Cup semifinal ... without the services of captain Michael Essien.
Ghana might just have the team speed to open up the defensive-minded Uruguayans, too.
As long as Anthony Annan and the Mensah non-brothers can hold it down defensively, and not allow Diego Forlan time and space on the ball, Ghana is in good shape.(****)
(****) Imagine we could combine these two teams, give Ghana say Diego Lugano to fortify the defense and Forlan and Luis Suarez up top. That would be one tough out.
Uruguay has been good defensively, only letting in one goal to this point. They did blitz South Africa 3-0, yet the Bafana Bafana aren't nearly in the same class as Ghana.
Will Uruguay be forced to play almost everyone back to contend with the hard-charging runs of Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah, leaving Forlan and Suarez almost isolated to play a two-man game with Edison Canvani in support?
You'd have to like Ghana a lot more if Asamoah Gyan wasn't dinged up in practice. He's the lead runner at forward and it's doubtful any of the other candidates on the bench can step in and replace him.
This match doesn't have the name recognition or the "sex appeal" as the other three quarterfinals. It doesn't make it any less of an enthralling football encounter.
Wonder if nerves will come into play. Will the teams realize just how special it is to gain a World Cup semifinal, which ensures at least the third place match?
Ghana's team might too young to realize this, but is playing in a sense for the entire continent of Africa.
Uruguay obviously has the old, nay ancient, ghosts of 1930 and 1950 hovering above it. If anything, those ghosts seem to have inspired Uurugay to the old days of la garra charrua -- a fighting spirit which defined the 1930 Cup winners.
Either way, I wish the U.S. was playing Uruguay. Thanks a lot Ghana.
The Pick -- Uruguay 1, Ghana 0 ... Forlan or Suarez are eventually going to score. Uruguay's defense is not, however, as susceptible to counter attacks as the U.S. as Ghana will find out.
Tarantino scale: "Inglorious Basterds." Perhaps not universally loved by all movie goers, but has enough underrated moments and classic dialogue to make it a worthy addition to QT's library. Could I interest either side in a glass of milk?
Okay, first before dissecting this game, the big question. Where will Jens Lehmann be watching? Hopefully somewhere with a nice, clean accessible bathroom and no sharp objects.
Obviously this is a rematch from the same round four years ago in Berlin.
If you recall that was a strange game, that for all intents and purposes was decided in the 71st minute when Argentina keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri pulled up lame, forcing Jose Peckerman to put in Leo Franco the first of three substitutes the Argentine would could to regret. Ahead 1-0 Peckerman first pulled Juan Román Riquelme for Esteban Cambiasso in the 72nd followed eight minutes later by taking off Hernan Crespo for the immortal Julio Cruz.
Within a minute Miroslav Klose leveled the game at 1-1 through a throw-in combination from Tim Borowski to Michael Ballack.
The Germans would, as usual, win the game in penalties thanks to Lehmann's famous cheat sheet tucked away in his sock.
Now everything I just wrote?
Throw it out the window.
Only three players from that game figure to see the field for Argentina Saturday in Cape Town -- Carlos Tevez, Maxi Rodriguez and Javier Mascherano, who might just be the key to this match.
Trying to predict Diego Maradona is about as fruitful as giving career advice to Lindsay Lohan. Both are keep on being crazy, regardless of what you say. Maradona, at least, seems to have cleaned up his act for South Africa, while Lindsay keeps on being Lindsay ... albeit now with a ankle monitoring unit.
That said, if Mascherano isn't on full-on, bulldog-on-t-bone clamp down on Mesut Özil this match, then I'll just give up, sit back and "keep on sucking." Maradona(*****) hasn't had any really moments of doubt this tournament, with Argentina easing into the quarterfinals. Will Germany prove, like it was for Peckerman, to be Maradona's Waterloo.
(*****) Underated subplot. Maradona's GQ gangster sideline attire vs. Joachim Loew's uber-Euro touchline fashion-plate guise. Loew's commitment to fashion during the world's biggest sporting event fascinates me for some reason. Wouldn't a ruffled Bob Braldey track suit suffice?
Bottle up Özil, and the Germans machine grinds to a halt -- at least in theory. Beyond man-marking Özil, you have to wonder if the 21-year-old is ready to cope with the pressure of carrying his team in a World Cup quarterfinal.
Conversely, not sure how Germany is going to cope with the Lionel Messi show, which is simply due to score this World Cup at some point.
Remember the Champions League knockout rounds? Stuttgart was okay defending Messi and Barcelona for the home leg, but then got routed 4-0 at the Camp Nou. Know who the carry over is? Sami Khedira. (Okay, converted Brazilian Cacau did score for Stuttgart, if that matters.)
I actually do like the German back four with Arne Friedrich, Per Mertesacker, Jerome Boateng and Philip Lahm. It's that pocket of space in front of goal where Messi and Carlos Tevez do so much damage that scare me. Eventually they're going to click on one of their combinations with Gonzalo Higuian and beat the defense.
Argentina have a great advantage that if somehow Germany bottles up Messi, Tevez is capable of taking over the game and providing a match-winner.
At the other end of the field, maybe Klose and Thomas Mueller know a few Bayern Munich training ground weaknesses of Martín Demichelis. You also have to love the speed of Mueller and Lucas Poldolski matching up with the Argentine backs of Nicolás Otamendi and Gabriel Heinze.
However you slice it, both of these teams like to play "downhill," taking it to the opposition.
Can't imagine a more open game in the tournament. Both teams want the ball and want to go at the other team. First team to three might win this, in what on paper is a classic in the making. This game sets up for a classic end-to-end affair ... so watch it get stuck in first gear and turn into a midfield morass.
All I hope, is it's a clean, controversy free game, especially with five Germans facing a suspension for the semifinals with another yellow card.
Your biggest concern for Argentina isn't Maradona's decisions, it's that this team hasn't yet been tested at the Cup nor has it seen a team with as many weapons as Germany. Argentina has been the proverbial "Good Ship Lollipop" so far. Will Maradona keep this ship afloat at the first sign of any cracks? Will this team keep it's composure if it falls behind 1-0 early?
The pick (no pun on Joachim Loew intended) -- Argentina 2, Germany 2 ... Argentina wins in penalty kicks.
Tarantino rating -- "Pulp Fiction" ... an utter classic in the making in Cape Town.
For certain, I remember Paraguay making Fabio Cannavaro look like he'd spent the previous night drinking with Bobby Solo in the first half of their Group E game a couple weeks ago.
And the cheekily calm game-clinching penalty of Oscar Cardoza vs. Japan is fresh in my mind.
Otherwise, Paraguay has played 390 minutes of pretty boring, forgettable soccer this World Cup.
It's almost as if Paraguay put on its uniforms -- the classically generic red-and-white stripes -- and showed up, waiting for somebody to beat them.
Italy was a disaster, as we found out (or as I told you before the Cup started). Slovakia? Well if there were a World Cup of MMA, they might be favorites. New Zealand? They liked to rock the party, but Paraguay was more than happy for a draw. Japan? Nice on set pieces, dull in the run of play.
Long story short, Paraguay is jumping into the deep end of the pool vs. Spain.
And Spain is due for a Euro-2008 possession domination and Paraguay falls right into their hands.
If these teams played 10 times, you'd have to like Spain in at least nine.
Paraguay's forwards have been out of form, while David Villa can't stop scoring.
Paraguay can watch the game tape of Spain vs. the U.S. from the 2009 Confederations Cup or the opening Group H game vs. Switzerland. Can't see Spain being bottled up again.
Somehow Vincent del Bosque using Llorente as center forward instead of the out-of-sorts Fernando Torres is a move that makes Spain even more balanced on attack.
This might be one of those matches that looks too easy on paper, but actually is that simple.
The pick -- Spain 3, Paraguay 0
Tarantino scale: "Jackie Brown." Should have some moments, but isn't quite the would-be classic of the other matchups. Consider Paraguay the Bridget Fonda of the quarterfinals, as it were.
* * *
For what it's worth, thought Bill Simmons did a nice job with his World Cup story. Point No. 1 is probably as big a reason as to why I enjoy soccer as much as I do. The final point, well, be thankful guys like Simmons are the future of American sports writing and not the Associated Press' Tim Dahlberg.