Just when you’re wondering how you could ever live without a pair of live televised football matches per day you suddenly get forty eight hours of cold turkey during which it dawns on you that there are only eight games left in the 2006 world cup. Half of those take place today and tomorrow in the footballing no man’s land that is the quarter finals. If you’ve got this far you can’t really be said to have failed. On the other hand you’ve not succeeded either unless you reach the semis.
The second round showed us we’re in a different competition now. There’s room for mistakes and some showboating in the group stages, but now the eight contenders for the world football crown face each game knowing that one moment of dropping their guard could dash their hopes and those of the millions cheering them on.
Germany v Argentina (4pm today)
If this were a boxing match it would be: Max Schmeling v Joe Louis
We’re reaching a bit here, because we suspect few of you personally remember this historic pair of fights from the 1930s. The two adversaries were closely matched. Both were attacking fighters and world champion in their turn. The German Schmeling claimed to have identified a defensive weakness in the seemingly unbeatable Louis and his strategy won him the first fight. Louis won the rematch in a flurry of early, devastating blows. Both Argentina and Germany look the business going forward, but question marks hang over both defences. This should be a fascinating clash which could be settled by a couple of quick blows from either side. We believe home advantage and that legendary tournament pacing will edge the Germans past an exciting Argentine team that may, like Spain, have peaked a little early.
Bargain fantasy choices: With only expensive teams left (bar Ukraine) squad juggling against “salary” caps is getting very difficult. Oliver Neuville is being used as a supersub by Jurgen Klinsmann and might be the man for a vital late goal. Lukas Podolski is also surprisingly cheap in some games. If you can wait until the teams are announced, whichever of Burdisso, Scaloni or Coloccini plays right back for Argentina should be cheap.
Picture of table footballers in Victoria Street via tompagenet’s Flickr stream.
Italy v Ukraine (8pm today)
If this were a boxing match it would be: Lennox Lewis v Vitali Klitschko
Klitschko, a Ukrainian, was a challenger whose quality many doubted when he faced champion Lennox Lewis in June 2003. “Quitschko” as some cruelly labelled him after he retired from a previous title fight complaining of shoulder pain (he later had surgery on a genuine problem) dominated the heavily fancied Lewis before a cut to Klitschko forced the referee to stop the fight in Lewis’s favour. Throughout his career nobody doubted Lewis’s ability or pedigree, but he had a habit of only doing just enough to beat an opponent which sometimes let him down dramatically. Italy are the shortest odds quarter finalists to go through, but they’re missing key central defenders for this game and their attack is yet to find any real fluency. Andriy Shevchenko, a regular scorer against the best Italian league sides, must be anticipating a matchup with the nation’s fourth choice centre back with some enthusiasm. Italy should have just enough to win, but they might not get more vulnerable than this.
Bargain fantasy choices: Andrea Barzagli is that reasonably priced reserve centre half who could be a steal if you think the Italian defence will hold. Andrea Gilardino is likely to be cheaper than Luca Toni and possibly more likely to score. Striking rival Iaquinta is out injured. Ukraine defender Rusol is back from suspension, they don’t concede many and he already has one set-piece tournament goal to his name.
England v Portugal (4pm Saturday)
If this were a boxing match it would be: Frank Bruno v Mike Tyson
Big Frank was hugely popular and much admired for his obvious natural gifts, but often couldn’t hold on to an early lead after appearing to grow tired, was sometimes criticised for a lack of movement and could be out-thought tactically. We’re not suggesting Deco bites peoples’ ears, but Figo apparently isn’t averse to a bit of extra-curricular heading, striker Joao Pinto received a lengthy suspension for punching the referee after being sent off as Portugal crashed out of the last world cup and three of their team-mates racked up almost two years’ worth of bans in the protests that followed the award of a late extra time penalty to France in the Euro 2000 semi-final. Everyone thought new manager Scolari had put an end to that sort of thing, but then came last Sunday’s spiteful scrap with the Dutch. Big Phil, like Tyson, holds two wins over his English challenger, but perhaps the key to victory tomorrow was revealed a week ago. Tony Jacklin’s pinpoint chip, along with Vieira’s header and Totti’s spot kick continued the trend of around half of all world cup knockout matches being decided by a set-piece. If Sven’s seen those stats, that’s why he allows Tony to quietly get on with his round while the other lads chase about. If Frankie and Mikey got it together a third time we reckon a single right from everybody’s favourite London sporting celebrity might just clinch it.
Bargain fantasy choice: Owen Hargreaves, now a regular, could be a very nice acquisition depending on your game’s scoring system and England’s progression. Simao Sabrosa is likely to get his chance to shine in the absence of suspended playmaker Deco.
Brazil v France (8pm Saturday)
If this were a boxing match it would be: George Foreman v Muhammad Ali
The Rancour in Frankfurt might not quite match up to the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, but there are parallels. In 1974 former world champion Ali was deemed past his best after recent setbacks while current title holder Foreman was swatting lively challengers away with two or three cursory thumps to the point where Ali was a heavy underdog and some feared he might leave the ring severely injured. Ali, however, soaked up what Foreman had to throw at him and then pounced when the lumbering giant grew tired, unused to opposition putting up much of a fight. Comebacks in world cup knockout games are rare, but France, though still struggling with internal tensions, put those aside in a glorious victory over a dangerous Spanish side. Brazil, meanwhile, were flattered by a 3-0 scoreline over Ghana. Don’t expect Henry to score, but you might want to chill a bit of French bubbly to enjoy while most of the rest of the nation are staring at their televisions in shock.
Bargain fantasy choice: Precious little value to be had from Brazil unless Fred comes on and scores again. Ze Roberto is attractively priced in some games and scored in the last match. The French midfield alternatively offers lots of potential from regulars like Ribery and Malouda who get their share of shots in.