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Archive for June, 2010

The knock out stage of the World Cup is well underway, with only eight teams now left in the competition.

Only five of the world’s top ten sides remain in contention: Brazil, Spain, Holland, Germany and Argentina. Portugal and England fell in the first knock out round, while France and Italy failed to get that far, and Croatia did not even qualify for the finals.

The outsiders are Uruguay at 16th, Paraguay 31st and Ghana 32nd

The first round of group matches averaged just over two goals a game. In the last 16 we saw 23 goals in 8 games, taking the average just a little higher.

In the race for the Golden Boot, Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina. Spain’s David Villa and Robert Vittek of Slovakia remain at the top of the pile. All three have now scored four goals, as each netted in the last round, although Vittek won’t be adding to his total after his side’s defeat to Holland.

On three goals and still in the tournament are Brazil’s Luis Fabiano, Luis Suarez of Uruguay and Thomas Muller of Germany. And several top strikers have scored twice including the likes of Tevez, Podolski and Forlan.

A few more for the stattos: Lionel Messi has so far had 23 shots at goal without scoring. Kaka and Muller are the top of the tree when it comes to assists with three each. And Mesut Oezil of Germany is the most flagged player, having been caught offside six times so far.

Not surprisingly Spain dominate in passes completed, with Xabi, Xabi Alonso, Busquets and Pique in the top four places.

The quarter final line up is intriguing.

There is a mouth-watering clash to kick us off: Holland v Brazil. The pair last met in the 1998 semi-finals with the Brazilians winning on penalties. The Dutch have eased through the competition without ever hitting top form and will need to improve substantially if they are to progress. Brazil have been impressive so far, combining an unusually solid defence with some fine attaching football, and I expect them to move into the semi-finals.

The surprise tie of the tournament is up next when Uruguay take on Ghana, who needed extra time to overcome the USA. The South Americans will be favourites to knock out the last remaining African team from the competition. With Forlan and Suarez both looking sharp up front they should win this one.

Argentina v Germany should be a classic encounter. Both teams have played good football and have key players on form. Both adopt an attacking approach to the game so there should be goals in this one. These two nations met at the same stage in the last World Cup and Germany progressed after a penalty shoot-out. I’m taking Maradona’s men to get their revenge in a tie that may go all the way once more.

And finally Spain take on surprise side Paraguay, victors over Japan in the only penalty shoot-out so far. This could be something of a repeat of Spain’s quarter final victory over Portugal, as they take on a defensive side that will be intent on stopping them playing. But with Villa on top form the Spanish should manage to carve out the chances they need to take care of their South American opposition.

So I’m looking at a semi-final line up with a Latin feel to it: Uruguay v Brazil and Argentina v Spain.

And the final? Well, I’m sticking to my pre-tournament prediction of Brazil to beat Spain and take the trophy yet again.

This hasn’t been the greatest of World Cups so far. Many of the big stars have failed to perform and the European sides in particular have disappointed.

Perhaps now that we have reached the business end of things the quality will improve and there will be some matches to remember.

Fingers crossed.

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Time For Murray?

The sporting world has had its attention firmly focused on South Africa over the past couple of weeks. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Andy Murray has progressed to the quarter finals at Wimbledon.

Could this be the tournament that finally gives the Scot his first grand slam title?

2010 has not been the best of years for Andy Murray. It started well enough when he reached the final of the Australian Open before losing to Roger Federer in straight sets. Federer was magnanimous in victory, telling the Scot, “Andy, well done for your incredible tournament. You’re too good a player not to win a Grand Slam so don’t worry about it.”

Murray then suffered a loss of form and exited a number of tournaments in the early rounds. At the French Open he lost out in the fourth round to the Czech player Tomáš Berdych; a disappointing result, although clay has never been Murray’s favourite surface.

The relative lack of attention paid to Wimbledon this year might just be to Murray’s advantage. There is great pressure on him to break his grand slam duck, and this is only increased by the media

The path to the quarter finals has been a smooth one for Andy Murray. Straight sets victories over Jan Hajek, Jarkko Nieminen, Gilles Simon and Sam Querrey have all been straightforward with Murray playing some fine tennis, although he has struggled with his serve at times. And he is the only one of the eight men remaining not to have lost a set in the tournament.

Next up is world number 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. If Murray plays to the form he has shown he should get past the powerful Frenchman. Murray’s return of serve has been very consistent so far, and he will need this weapon against a serve and volley type of player.

 If Murray does progress to the last four things will get very much more difficult.

His likely semi-final opponent is world number 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain. The French Open champion would be a very tough opponent indeed. Nadal, always seen as a clay court specialist, has improved his grass court game considerably in recent years.

And, assuming there is not a major shock along the way, Murray would then face arguably the best player ever. Roger Federer has reached the last seven Wimbledon finals, winning six of them. He would be firm favourite and Murray would have to be at the peak of his form to triumph. But he might just do it.

So Murray again has the chance to become the first Scot to win a Grand Slam tournament, and the first British man to win one since Fred Perry in 1936. It is not going to be at all easy to secure the victory that would take his career to the next level – although Andy Murray could be up to the challenge.

Wimbledon is perhaps Murray’s best chance to break his duck – so let’s hope that this is his year!

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Good referees should merge into the background and not take centre stage. That’s a given. And no one wants to be talking about officials or controversial decisions when all of the world’s top players are on display.

But in both of yesterday’s World Cup matches decisions by the officials were major talking points. And that brings the arguments about the use of technology in football to the fore once more.

Frank Lampard was denied a legitimate goal against Germany when his shot came off the bar, clearly bounced behind the line and then came back out again. Neither the referee nor the linesman (I hate the term referee’s assistant) was in a perfect position, but both should have been able to make the correct call.

Then in the second game of the day Argentina took the lead against Mexico with a goal from Carlos Tevez that was clearly two yards offside. This time the linesman was up with play and it is difficult to understand how he managed to make such a bad call.

And then there was a twist to the story.

The big screen in the stadium showed the goal and the clear offside. The Mexican players appealed to the officials, who also appeared to have seen the replay. But they could not change their mind based on video evidence.

There was a similar incident last year in a Confederations Cup match between Brazil and Egypt.

A shot was blocked on the line by the arm of an Egyptian defender who immediately fell to the ground clutching his face – a clear attempt to con the referee. And for a moment it appeared that deception had worked as English referee Howard Webb pointed for a corner rather than a penalty.

Webb then appeared to communicate with someone via his mic and earpiece, before finally making the correct decision by awarding the penalty and sending off the mendacious Egyptian. It appeared that his decision was made after consultation with the fourth official who had viewed a replay of the incident on TV.

It can be argued that the correct result was arrived at, but the method of doing so was undoubtedly wrong according to the letter of the Laws.

So why can technology not be used in football to ensure the correct decisions are made? It works in many other sports after all.

The usual argument is that the ref’s decision has to be final. But if the ref sought advice from a video ref, as happens in rugby, he can still be the one who ultimately takes the decision. Is that any different from the ref asking the linesman for his take on an incident where he had the better view?

Would a video official undermine the referee’s authority? Well it doesn’t seem to do so in the NFL. Or cricket. Or tennis. Or in any other sport that uses technology.

Now no one is suggesting that every decision made by a referee should be second guessed. Many of them are judgement calls and those should be left well alone.

But on matters of fact it is different. Did the ball cross the line? Was the player in an offside position? There are not matters of interpretation and a very quick review could stop mistakes from being made that could potentially affect the outcome of a match.

And it needn’t slow the game down either. Referees already communicate with other officials through a microphone and an ear piece. It would only take a matter of a few seconds for a video referee to watch a replay and tell the referee whether he got the decision correct.

If it is not immediately clear either way then the original decision should stand. In the NFL there must be “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn a decision and that seems like a good standard to me.

If a video official had been working yesterday’s two matches England would have been awarded a goal and Argentina would have had one disallowed.

It is entirely possible that neither decision being called correctly would ultimately have changed the final result of the game. But what if this type of incident happens in the last minute of a match?

The case for using technology is clear. There are no good arguments against ensuring that correct calls are made as often as possible.

It is simply time that football followed many other sports and dragged itself into the 21st century.

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They’re Going Home

Germany v England. Two teams that have battled it out many times before in major tournaments came face to face in the last sixteen of the World Cup.

It turned out to be a much more one sided match than anyone had predicted as the Germans ran out very confortable winners. But it was a game with great controversy as well as some tremendous German passing football.

Fabio Capello’s side came into this clash as second favourites. Draws with the USA and Algeria followed by a narrow one goal win over Slovenia saw England qualify only as group runners up. Meanwhile Joachim Loew’s men won their group with victories over Australia and Ghana and a surprise defeat to Serbia.

There were no surprises in the team line ups.

England for once had no injury worries. Capello decided to name an unchanged side and stuck to the 4-4-2 formation that meant Stephen Gerrard played on the left of midfield. Matthew Upson retained his place in central defence despite Jamie Carragher being available again after suspension and Jermaine Defoe was rewarded for his winner against Slovenia with a starting role.

Germany were without forward Cacau through injury but Miroslav Klose, who returned from suspension, would in all likelihood have started in any case. Both midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and defender Jerome Boateng passed late fitness tests and took their places in the team.

It was a tense start, which was probably to be expected in such an important game, and both sides misplaced passes early on. German playmaker Ozil had the first chance of the match from a narrow angle in 4 minutes, but James made the save with his legs. England’s first shooting chance came on 18 minutes but Lampard’s poor free kick was easily blocked by the German defensive wall.

Germany took the lead on 20 minutes and it was a goal the English defence will not want to see again. A long goal kick straight through the middle cleared Terry leaving Upson to chase with Klose. The German striker showed great strength to shrug off the defender before calmly placing the ball in the corner of the net for his 50th international goal.

It could have got worse for England on 30 minutes when a good German move gave Klose another opportunity, but this time James rescued England with a fine save.

Just a minute later the Germans again carved the English defence open. Klose and Muller combined before the midfielder set up Podolski who fired under James from a tight angle to double the German’s lead.

Two goals down, England were reeling. The Germans were creating chances against a very fragile defence and came close to scoring a third through the irrepressible Klose.

Then the game was turned on its head. On 36 minutes the German defence were caught out with a short corner and Lampard’s cross was headed home by Upson.

And they should have been level shortly afterwards when Lampard’s shot from the edge of the box came off the underside of the bar and quite clearly crossed the line before bouncing out. Astonishingly the goal wasn’t given – was it payback for the famous decision Geoff Hurst got so many years back?

The whistle blew to a cacophony of boos from England fans, with the Germans ahead by 2 – 1. What a first half!

The second half started slowly but it burst into life on 51 minutes. A long range free kick from Lampard came back off the bar with the German keeper Neuer no more than a spectator.

Capello made a change on 64 minutes, brining Joe Cole into the game in place of Milner. It appeared to be a straight swap, with no change in formation, meaning that Cole, like Gerrard, was playing wide rather than in a central position to influence the game.

With 66 minutes played the Germans broke with devastating effect after yet another Lampard free kick was blocked. Ozil and Schweinsteiger combined to send Muller through and his powerful shot beat James, who might just think he could have done better. The two goal cushion was restored, and Capello responded to the urgent need for goals by telling Emile Heskey to warm up!

And worse was to follow just three minutes later. Another swift counter saw Ozil break free down the right wing. He kept his composure and rolled the ball across the six yard box for Muller to score his second with ease. 4 – 1 and the game was up for England.

The Germans saw the rest of the match out without too much difficulty and ran out worthy winners.

This was a comprehensive German victory. Sure, England were denied a legitimate goal bit it wouldn’t have changed the eventual outcome of the game. The calls for video replay will get louder. But that is a red herring as England were well outplayed,

The Germans dominated the midfield with both Schweinsteiger and Ozil outstanding. They played good football throughout, showing the very passing and moving that England lacked.

Capello’s men were below par as they have been throughout the tournament. The big players did not show their club form or enhance their reputations in any way. The men in red traipsed off the pitch at the final whistle looking like a well beaten team

.

So Capello and co make an early exit from the World Cup. Their poor performances in the group stages gave them a difficult last 16 tie and they were simply nowhere near good enough to live with an excellent young German side.

Few England players can look back on this World Cup with any pride. Only Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson would receive pass marks from me. Milner, Barry and Defoe all did well at times but were inconsistent. And many others were simply very poor.

Robert Green was given his chance but started the tournament with a howler. The central defence was much changed but all four players who started there looked fragile. And the big players did not perform: Lampard and Gerrard had good moments, but failed to impose themselves on the tournament. Wayne Rooney did not even come close to scoring in four games.

There will be criticism of Fabio Capello in the media following the early exit for some of his decisions.

His use of Gerrard exclusively on the left rather than supporting a striker where he does his best work. The baffling selection of Emile Heskey given his poor scoring record throughout his career. And the refusal to play Joe Cole, whose creativity might just have made a difference.

Will Capello still be in change when the European Championship campaign begins? If he is he will have to build a new side to take England forward. This one has failed to find form in four games and it caught up with them in the end.

For Germany a mouth-watering quarter final tie against the Argentinians beckons, assuming they take care of Mexico tonight.

But for England only a long flight home awaits.

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Writing the day after the emergency budget I suggested that the Liberal Democrats would come under increasing pressure over their part in an unpopular budget. It now appears that the VAT rise in particular is proving extremely unpopular with the party’s own supporters.

According to a YouGov poll in today’s Observer, 48% of those who voted for the Lib Dems in the general election are now less likely to do so again as a direct result of the increase in VAT from 17.5% to 20%.

This was a rise that the Liberal Democrats campaigned against during the election. Clegg himself unveiled a poster in Glasgow warning of what they called a “Tory VAT bombshell”. And, just before the budget, the new Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems, Simon Hughes, said that a VAT increase would be “regressive”

So Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was against a VAT rise. But now Deputy Prime Minister Clegg calls the increase “unavoidable”.

Previously the Lib Dems had argued that cuts should not be implemented too swiftly as this would damage the economy and threaten recovery. But now they are both backing the draconian Tory cuts they warned against and also supporting the tax increases this makes necessary.

In any coalition there has to be compromise. That’s unavoidable. But a 180 degree about face cannot be called a compromise. It is a u-turn, whatever party leaders may claim.

Media coverage of the budget was initially savage, but over the past few days the Tories have got off relatively lightly. Perhaps this is because cuts from the Tories are not seen as a surprise, indeed perhaps as something that was to be expected.

But the Lib Dems are viewed differently. The party likes to portray itself as progressive and fighting for social justice. Yet now they are attempting to justify a regressive tax increase that will hit the poorest in society the hardest.

Labour is, understandably, working to emphasise the fault line that is developing within the coalition. Harriet Harman portrayed Nick Clegg as the Tory’s fig leaf in her budget response, and claimed that the party had sold its principles for ministerial cars.

Writing today, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander tried to defend his party’s involvement in the budget.

Stating that their manifesto committed the party to “only considering tax rises if necessary on grounds of fairness”, he argued that the situation had now changed. Alexander argued that tax rises were now required and that raising income tax would have been a disincentive to work. He also concluded that the budget was progressive; a bold claim given the VAT rise is universally acknowledged to be a regressive move.

Lib Dem MPs will feel very uneasy as they read this morning’s papers. It was reported last week that at least one, Bob Russell, may well vote against the coalition’s budget.

Today there may well be several others considering their position.

Support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen to around 16% in several recent polls, well down on the 23% the party achieved in the general election.

This will worry party leaders – and they will fear that their support will fall further as the spending cuts bite. The political gamble of joining the Conservatives in government is looking like a losing one right now.

 

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It’s Knock Out Time

The initial group stage of the World Cup is now over and the 32 qualifiers have been reduced to just 16 teams for the knock out stages.

But there have been some surprises along the way, setting up a number of second round matches that are not at all as most people would have expected them to be.

The European sides have fared badly so far in South Africa. Only six of the thirteen original entrants retain an interest in the World Cup

France and Italy head the list of teams already heading home, and they were so poor that they thoroughly deserved their early exits. Both of the previous finalists have failed to qualify from the opening round for the very first time. Serbia, many people’s tip as a dark horse, also failed to qualify after two losses.

African teams have not performed well either. South Africa have a victory over France to remember but they became the first host country to fall at the first hurdle. Ivory Coast were unsuccessful in the toughest of the groups and it is now left to Ghana to carry the continent’s hopes into the last 16.

The sides from the Americas have played very well so far. From the northern part of the continent, the USA and Mexico qualified with only Honduras missing out, while from the south all five sides, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile remain alive.

The remaining qualifiers come from Asia, with Japan and South Korea both going through as group runners up. The very poor North Korean side has exited along with the Australians, who now play on Asia rather than Oceania, from where New Zealand are also out.

The first round of matches has given us 101 goals from 48 matches, an average of just over two goals per game. Hopefully this will go up as the tournament progresses. There have been few high scoring games: Portugal’s 7 – 0 demolition of North Korea saw the most goals but there were very few one sided games this time around.

In the race for the Golden Boot, Gonzalo Higuain of Argentina. Spain’s David Villa and Robert Vittek of Slovakia lead the way with three goals each. Eleven others have scored twice, leaving a very open competition for the prize.

One other interesting statistic: the player who has attempted most shots at goal so far is Lionel Messi with 20. But he has yet to score a single goal. Surely that run will not continue? The tournament’s sharpshooter is Lee Jung-Soo of South Korea, who has scored with both of his shots at goal so far.

So what will the last sixteen ties have to offer us?

Uruguay will take on South Korea in the first tie of the second round. The South Americans looked good in their early matches and will be clear favourites but the Koreans are a talented side. This one could see a few goals.

The USA against Ghana is a surprising tie, as many would have expected England to win their group and play in this match. But the Americans late winner put them through on merit and they will now be strong favourites to progress to the quarter finals.

England’s poor performance and eventual qualification as runners up gives then a tie against Germany. They have looked good and played some flowing football, which is something the English have failed to do. I think the Germans will prevail, without the need for penalties this time!

The Argentinians are playing very well and should have too much class for Mexico. Higuain will be looking for more goals and Messi might even break his duck too. Maradona’s men should qualify with ease.

Similarly, Holland should be far too good for Slovakia. The Dutch have not hit top form yet, but they eased through their group without problems. And the squad seems to be together at this tournament, with no signs of a typical crisis which too often affects this talented nation.

Tournament favourites Brazil will be firm favourites to brush aside a Chile team that will be weakened by several suspensions. My tips to win the trophy should get through without too much fuss.

Paraguay will start as favourites against the Japanese, but I think there will be an upset here. I’ve been impressed by the Japanese and at 11/4 or so they represent good value to progress.

The final match sees Spain taking on Portugal in what is something of a local derby. This last match could be the tie of the round and I expect a high scoring game. I think Spain will have too much for their neighbours in the end, but Ronaldo and co could provide a stern test.

If my predictions come true, we would see a quarter final line up with Uruguay v USA, Japan v Spain, Argentina v Germany and Holland v Brazil.

But given my tipping record so far, it will probably look nothing like that!

The knock out stage is often when tournaments come alive. There are no second chances now, it is sudden death. And that will hopefully lead to more attacking matches for fans to enjoy.

It all kicks off later this afternoon.

Sit back and enjoy it!

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John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are not exactly household names in the world of tennis, which is why they were scheduled to play on Court 18 at Wimbledon.

Little did anyone know that they would produce one of the most remarkable matches in the entire history of the sport.

On Tuesday their match was called to a halt at two sets each because of bad light. So on Wednesday afternoon the two men returned to the court to play out the fifth set of their first round tie.

An incredible seven hours later play was again stopped as the sun went down. The final set score? 59 – 59.

That’s not a misprint. Honestly.

After 108 games of tennis the two players could not be separated in what had become the longest match ever played. In fact the final set alone has so far been played out for longer than the previous record for a match of six hours and 35 minutes.

Even the scoreboard gave up, unable to cope with numbers more usually seen in basketball than tennis.

Mahut, from France, had his first break points of the entire final set at 50-50, but American Isner managed to save both. He had two match points himself at 33-32 and another one at 59-58, but could not close out this most incredible of matches.

John MacEnroe, who has seen almost everything that tennis has to offer, described the match as, “the greatest advertisement we’ve ever had for our sport” and it’s hard to argue with him.

Now anyone who has ever played tennis will tell you that it is a physically demanding sport. And to play at top level for seven hours continuously is an amazing feat.

To put it into context, this is the equivalent, in time at least, of playing almost five games of football back to back. Or of running three marathons one after the other.

There are hardly the words to describe the herculean feat of endurance and stamina that these two athletes have so far achieved. And of course it’s not finished yet!

So the next time you read of footballers complaining that they have to play two games in a week, just remember what true athletes can accomplish.

John Isner and Nicolas Mahut have ensured that their names will go down in sporting history.

They deserve the respect and admiration of every sports fan.

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