World Cup Final Predictions

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For the past month we been glued to our TV sets for the world’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup. Watching your favorite player represent their host countries or for some learning about the world’s most universal sport, learning how interesting it can be. Here at The Starting Point, we give you our predictions for tonight’s big match up.
 
Muller or Messi? Who has a bigger impact on the game, if not them who else to look out for?
 
Greg Hudson: Muller. Messi is fantastic but his impact in the semifinal was non-existant. His only shot at goal was during penalties. Muller on the other hand scored the opener and bagged 2 assists in Germany’s rout of Brazil. For Germany the other player to watch is Miroslav Klose. He may be 36 but he still knows how to score like a pro and he’s a true goal poacher: he’s invisible and let’s the play develop around him and then pops up in the right place at the right time to finish it off. For the Argentines I have to go with Higuain. Sure, Di Maria is great but Higuain is overshadowed by his more famous teammates and that may just give him the little opening he needs for a breakthrough moment.
 
Which side formation’s causes for each other or evenly sided match up?
 
GH: Germany will cause all sorts of problems for Argentina because the pass so well and they make such devastating attacking runs. Brazil had no answer for the blitzkrieg the Germans launched their way. And while Argentina have the pace to be a problem on the counter, the German defence is so well-disciplined that they can cope with the threat.
 
If the game goes into penalty shots, who are you taking ?
GH: Have to go with Germany. The Germans spend hours every week training for penalty kicks and how to put them in an un-savable position. Not to mention that Manuel Neuer is one of the best penalty-save goalkeepers in the world.
 
Man of the Match?
 
GH: Muller or Toni Kroos in the attacking midfield.
 
Final Prediction: 
GH: Germany 3-1 Argentina (Muller, Klose, Schurrle; Higuain)

2014 World Cup Quarterfinals Preview: Day 1

By Aaron Hampton

The dust has settled on the round of 16 and now only 8 teams remain as we look forward to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup.  Friday’s matches include a clash between European powerhouses France and Germany, as well as an explosive matchup between Brazil and Columbia.  With berths in the semi-finals at stake, lets take a look deeper look at both matches heading into Friday.

France vs. Germany

We begin our preview with what most would consider the marquee matchup of the quarter-finals in France vs. Germany. France come into this game after a hard-fought 2-0 victory against Nigeria, needing second half goals by Paul Pogba and Moussa Sissko to advance, while the Germans needed extra time to see off Algeria.

The crucial question for Germany coming into this matchup is how they will line up on defense.  Against Algeria, Germany consistently left acres of space and channels for the Algerian attack to run through, and had Manuel Neuer not put on one of the best goalkeeping performances of this World Cup, Algeria may have been able to turn one or two of those chances into goals.

 

Germany seemed to respond well to a second half adjustment in that game that saw Sami Khedira replace Phillipp Lahm in midfield, with Lahm then slotting in at fullback. This is the best runout for Germany and the one we should see against France, because in this formation Khedira is able to provide a shield in front of the back four, while Lahm solidifies the flank and also offers an additional attacking outlet out wide. Germany should also be boosted by the return of Mat Hummels who had to missed the game against Algeria due to an illness.

As for France, the key for them in this matchup against Germany will be controlling and winning the ball back in the middle of the pitch.  It’s no secret that the Germans lack depth in the wide areas of the field, and look to play the ball through the middle with their midfielders.  However, the German midfielder’s have lacked form in this World Cup, with players like Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil struggling to make an impact in the tournament.

This is where the athleticism of France in the middle of the pitch could be the area in which the game is won.  France can use their speed and quickness in the middle, with players like Paul Pogba and Yohan Cabye in specific, to press Germany hard and win the ball back these areas.  By doing that you get Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann out on the break, running right at a German back line that has looked questionable all tournament long.

France has made it to the semi-finals in each of the last five times they have made it out of round one, while Germany has made the semi-finals in three consecutive World Cups, so one of these teams will have their streak broken as the whistle sounds.  In the end, I believe the speed and quickness of France will be too much for Germany to handle.

My prediction: France 1, Germany 0

Brazil vs Columbia

After surviving a dramatic penalty shootout against Chile, the dream remains alive for Brazil heading into their quarter-final matchup against Columbia.  Outside of putting on an impressive display against Cameroon, Brazil have failed to live up to the hype surrounding this team coming into the World Cup, and on numerous occasions looked the lesser side on the field during the tournament.  Anything less than their best performance on Friday will see them exit the World Cup against a Columbia team that is playing the best football out of any team left in the tournament.

Brazil have a few concerns heading into this matchup, namely the fitness of star man Neymar who suffered a right knee injury in their win against Chile.  Neymar has found the net four times during the tournament, and has virtually singlehandedly led the Brazilian offense throughout this World Cup, and will be looked at to provide attacking inspiration for the squad despite injury concerns. 

And while it remains true that Neymar at 85% is still one hell of a football player and can change a match in an instant, the fact that he comes into this match with fitness concerns puts more pressure on the other members of a lackluster Brazilian attack to step up.

While more subtle but no less equally important, the loss of Luis Gustavo due to suspension will also hurt Brazil coming into this matchup, as he would of been the player called on to keep an eye on Columbia’s James Rodriguez, who is looking to become the first player since 2002 to score in his first five matches in the World Cup.

The aforementioned Rodriguez is in the form of his life, and has been the key to the engine for a Columbia team that has scored 11 goals in all four of the match ups that they have won.  Clearly Brazil will have to make note of Rodriguez wherever he is on the pitch because if he is given even the smallest amount of space or opportunity, he can no doubt push Columbia singlehandedly through to their first semi-final in history.

All things considered, this matchup promises to be an explosive one between the two neighboring South American countries.  Brazil have yet to show their full potential in this tournament despite advancing this far, and with so much riding on the line against a CONMEBOL rival, this may just be the matchup that brings out the Brazil squad with we expected to see at the beginning of the World Cup.  The pressure is great, but I don’t expect Brazil to collapse.

My prediction:  Brazil 2, Columbia 1

 

 

Thoughts From the Opening Matches of the Knockout

By Aaron Hampton  

The knockout rounds of the World Cup began this weekend and saw Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands all go through to the quarterfinals.  So while you’re still catching your breath from the two penalty shootouts or possibly still gasping in amazement at James Rodriguez’s wonder goal, here’s my takeaways from each fixture.

Brazil Survive and Advance

The Selecao’s performance against Chile was at times frustrating, always dramatic, and in the end just enough to see Brazil through to the quarterfinals.  And while they are moving on to the next round of the World Cup, it seems as though this win left more answers than questions; mainly about the creativity of this Brazilian squad. Neymar is the unquestioned star of this team, and it’s clear that as he goes so will Brazil, however you can’t help but be struck by just how ordinary this team looks when Neymar isn’t allowed to weave his magic. 

Coming into the match with four goals, if Chile had any chance at winning the match they were going to have to limit Neymar and overall they did a good job in containing him, often putting him in situations with three or four defenders surrounding him.  With that type of focus squarely on stopping the Barcelona forward, it was on the other members of the team to provide Brazil with another outlet of attack.

 Hulk had his best game for Brazil in recent memory, consistently finding success getting up and down the flanks and putting pressure on the back line of Chile, but even his failed clearance led to Alexis Sanchez equalizing for Chile in the first half.  Beyond him,  you really struggle to find anyone else who had an impact on the game.  Fred continued his struggles in this tournament, and was subbed off for the equally ineffective Jo.  Oscar, consistently a source of creativity and attacking inspiration for Chelsea, also struggled to make his mark on the game and was virtually nonexistent on the pitch.

 And while at this stage of the tournament advancing to the next match is really all that matters, clearly if the host nation is going to live up to the high expectations set on them, they will have to do more to supplement the attacking prowess of Neymar.  There will be games, games of which we’ve already seen during this World Cup, where he will put the team on his back and drag Brazil across the finish line.  But as we get into the later rounds, Brazil can’t count on that every match.  Eventually goals are going to have to come from somewhere else.  Where is anybody’s guess, but moving onto the next round Brazil will have a few days to think it over.

Rodriguez Shines For Columbia

In all honesty their was only one clear distinction between Columbia and Uruguay in their knockout round matchup, one team had James Rodriguez and the other did not.  That’s where we’re at at this point in the World Cup, where James Rodriguez is making himself a household name with each passing match producing another otherworldly performance. Coming into the World Cup minus the talents of world-class striker Radamel Falcao, many were wondering how Columbia would be able to progress deep into the tournament without their number one striker.  Not to say that Falcao has become an afterthought, but that’s just how easy it is to get caught in the amazement of what James Rodriguez is doing in this tournament. 

With five goals and two assists, he has been the unquestioned player of the World Cup.  But what’s even more impressive is that he seems to grow in confidence and get better as Columbia gets deeper in the World Cup.  His eye for goal and finding teammates in dangerous positions has been second to none to anybody in this year’s World Cup.

 His wonder strike in the first half of Columbia’s win was a microcosm of everything Rodriguez has meant to Columbia and fans watching the World Cup.  It was creative, confident, and clinical, the perfect balance between flair and finishing. 

Columbia now goes through to a quarterfinal matchup against Brazil, firmly on the back of their 22 year-old prodigy.  How far they make rest squarely on the left foot of James Rodriguez, who continues to announce himself to the world each and every time he sets foot on the pitch.

Heartbreak for Mexico

Five minutes from stoppage time and it seemed as though Mexico was on their way to qualifying for the quarterfinals of the World Cup for only third time in there history.  It was then when set piece defending, the achilles heel of this Mexican team, reared it’s ugly head.  With the Netherlands taking their tenth corner of the game, Wesley Sneijder was allowed to pounce on a deflection and  bury a wide open shot into the back of the net to knot the game up at one goal a piece.

From there the nightmare would continue as Arjen Robben, who unquestionably was the Netherlands most threatening player all afternoon, was taken down in the box in stoppage time, which led to Klass-Jan Huntelaar cooly slotting home the game winning goal from the spot.

What makes the defeat even more hard to stomach if you’re a Mexico supporter, is that prior to the two goals in eight minutes by the Netherlands, El Tri were clearly the better side of the two all afternoon  They were able to dictate the pace at which the game was played, not allowing the Netherlands to get out on the break and stifling both Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben whenever they picked up the ball.  Beyond that they were fearless in getting forward and taking their chances at goal, which was rewarded by Giovanni Dos Santos first goal for the national team in over two years. 

And while Mexico may have been the better team for 80 minutes of the contest, all that’ll be talked about and dissected from the match is the meltdown in the dying moments of the game.  Which is a shame because in just a short time since World Cup qualifying this team has grown under the leadership of Miguel Herrera.  It was evident in their gusty performance in earning a draw against Brazil during the group stage, and it was solidified in outplaying the Netherlands for large portions of their match.

The Magical Run Continues for Costa Rica

In a World Cup filled with many shocks and surprises possibly none is bigger than the continued success Costa Rica is experiencing in this year’s tournament.  They were never expected to challenge in a group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay and yet they finished first in that group and continue to make waves in the tournament after dispatching Greece by way of penalties.

While it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing performance tactically from Costa Rica, their heart and resolve were on display for all the world to see as they had to finish almost the entire second half and 30 minutes of extra time down to only 10 men. As Greece dominated possession and tried to kill the game off, keeper Keylor Navas made a number of great saves at close range to keep his team in the game and inspire to withstand Greece’s offensive advances.

It’s only fitting that he have the defining moment of the game in the penalty shootout.  With each team taking turns cooly slotting home penalty shots, Navas made an impressive diving, left handed save that put Costa Rica in the drivers seat, and gave defender Michael Umana the platform to kill off the game with his final penalty shot, and send Costa Rica on to a matchup with the Netherlands.

Once again Costa Rica will come into that game with the Netherlands as the overachieving underdog, but as the games go by and the wins pile up that title is ill-fitting.  This is a squad that belongs and one that will take the fight right to the Netherlands.  And while their run up until this point has been magical, something tells me they still my have one or two tricks up there sleeve.

 

True Grit

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By Aaron Hampton

It wasn’t easy or pretty, but there was something so American about the way the United States qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup.  Michael Bradley talked in the lead up to the World Cup about wanting to be the that can suffer the most, and that in itself sums up the war of attrition the United States overcame in making it out of the group.

Take the loss of Jozy Altidore for example.  Losing your number one striker would be a major blow for any team, but more so for the United States and Klinsmann’s preference for running a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Now you can make what you want of Altidore’s form heading into the World Cup, but the fact remains no one on the roster can fill his shoes as the lone man upfront for the United States in that formation, with neither Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, nor Aron Johanasson as adept at playing with their backs to goal.  Yet, without their target man upfront the United States were still able to brave a lethal attacking threat in Ghana just long enough for John Brooks to etch his name into folklore with his brilliant header in the dying embers of that opening game.

Even more important than the three points taken from the win against Ghana was how the United States responded to dominating large portions of their match against Portugal, only to see Portugal salvage a draw behind a momentary defensive lapse and a picture-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo.  A win in that game would have sent the United States through to the knockout round with a game in hand against Germany, however it wasn’t meant to be and the United States faced Germany with their berth in the knockout round far from secure.

And while the United States came away on the short end of there match against Germany, there performance was gritty, determined, and everything needed in order to make it through to the next round.

That’s not to say there is no work that needs to be done to the squad by the time the knockout round begins.  Michael Bradley will definitely need to improve his form heading into the next round.  While the United States clawed its way out of the group stage without the best performances from Bradley, eventually during this tournament they will run into a point where they will need the steel reserve of Bradley to push them through.  His touch and decision making haven’t been what we are accustomed to seeing from Bradley, but with the group stage behind and essentially a new tournament starting with the knockout stage, it’s now or never for Bradley.

The health of Jozy Altidore will determine whether the United States’reverts back to a 4-2-3-1 or if Klinsmann continues to tinker away at the formation to find the perfect mix without the Sunderland striker.  The United States went to a 4-5-1 against Germany with Clint Dempsey upfront, and the results were mixed at best.  While Dempsey is serviceable at that role upfront, it’s clear he’s more effective linking play and making runs at goal in contrast to playing with his back to goal.

The back line of the United States has been a lingering question mark for the team since World Cup qualifying, and that’ll also be an interesting area to keep an eye on as the team moves forward.  While I believe both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have both right and left back cemented respectively, the center back position still poses a question for the United States.  Omar Gonzalez looked impressive against Germany, neutralizing a few German attacks with monster clearances, and it will be interesting to see if he slots in next to Matt Besler in the middle of that back four.

To say the United States has come a long way since their 2-1 loss to Honduras during World Cup qualifying would be an understatement.  That loss, arguably the lowest point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, brought with it questions about his leadership style, tactics, and overall suitability for the job handed to him after the firing of Bob Bradley.  Fast forward to the present with the United States advancing out of the “Group of Death”and to a knockout round showdown with either Belgium or Algeria, and it’s clear to see that not only was that loss an aberration, but that there’s a grit to this team we didn’t see before.  A decidedly American grit that will see them through to the knockout round.

Vamos Começar!!!

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World Cup Brazil 2014 Preview
By Greg Hudson
As the 2014 World Cup gets underway Thursday when hosts Brazil take on Croatia, let’s look beyond the buildup to the big event, the questions about whether the stadia, airports, and country itself would be ready for the biggest stage in world sports, and look at how the tournament itself might play out, and who, at the end, stands a chance to lift the golden ball.
Group A – Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico
The hosts are certainly the favorites in this group, with the likes of Neymar, Hulk, Oscar, and Fernandinho. The Luka-Modric-led Croatian team are second-favorites, but don’t count out Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon. Mexico made a few big changes to their roster this year and just don’t have the firepower to match the big boys in this group.
Group B – Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain
It’s an unfortunate group in terms of the massive gulf in class between Australia and Chile and the powerhouses of the Netherlands and Spain, who met in the World Cup final just four years ago. Granted, neither team is as strong as it was in 2010, but both are still favorites to make a run well into the knockout rounds.
Group C – Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
This is a true toss-up. Colombia have the single best player in Radamel Falcao, but he’s injured and hasn’t recovered in time to make the team, and it’s not certain how well his country will fare without his goalscoring threat. Greece don’t have much star power but play well together. The Cote D’Ivoire stand a good chance with the likes of Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure proving that age doesn’t necessarily mean decline, while Japan play hard for all 90 minutes of every game but don’t really have much in terms of quality. Expect Colombia and the Ivory Coast to go through.
Group D – Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay
It’s a mini group of death, with Costa Rica the only team certain to miss out. Uruguay have an incredibly strong team and the world’s premier in-form striker, Luis Suarez, but he is just coming off a minor knee surgery, and while he’s recovered well, fitness may prove a concern. England, once considered favorites in the group, have injury concerns of their own after the loss of Alex Chamberlain for at least the opening matches, and questions remain about the fitness of captain Steven Gerrard. Italy are also contenders, with legend Andrea Pirlo making his swan song on the world’s biggest stage. In the end though, expect England and Uruguay to move on.
Group E – Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland
The French and Swiss teams are almost a sure bet this year, barring a French team strike like at the 2010 World Cup when half the squad quit halfway through the competition in protest over managerial policies. Ecuador and Honduras have some quality and will certainly force the favorites to play well in order to get the three points, but they just aren’t large enough countries to assemble the kind of squads that would get them past the group stage.
Group F – Argentina, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Argentina are the clear favorites to win the Group, with Bosnia and Nigeria a close call for the second qualifying spot. The Argentines have one of the strongest teams in the competition thanks to Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Carlos Tevez, but the match between Bosnia and Nigeria is the one to watch is you’re looking for drama, seeing as the winner will most likely be the team to advance. Congrats to Iran for qualifying, but they haven’t a chance.
Group G – Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States
Fans of the US men’s national team were distraught after the draw for this year’s tournament thanks in no small part to the fact that the USMNT were drawn into the group of death. In fact, all four of these countries advanced to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup, with Ghana reaching the quarterfinals and Germany reaching the semis. Germany are certainly the best team in the group, even without midfield star Marco Reus. The depth of talent in Germany is almost unrivaled and although Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, his fitness is in doubt. Ghana and the USMNT will need to play perfect games against the two giants to stand a chance, and while it’s distinctly possible the Americans will go through, it’s no less likely that they’ll come home without a single point.
Group H – Algeria, Belgium, Russia, South Korea
The Russian team is aging but strong, and the Belgian team is young and improving. Look for these two teams to advance against Algeria, which sends most of its talented young players to France by age 12, and South Korea, who just don’t have the kind of talent to compete with the two European teams.
Once the group stages are complete, check back for our in-depth projection for the knockout rounds and our predictions for who will win the 2014 World Cup!

Left Behind

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Landon Donovan Excluded From US World Cup Squad

By Greg Hudson
 
When the United States Men’s National Team touches down in Rio next month for the 2014 World Cup, they’ll be without their all-time leading goal-scorer Landon Donovan.
 
Donovan, 32, has scored 57 goals in 156 games for the USMNT in 14 years since his promotion to the team as just an 18-year-old. His five World Cup goals tally more than Leonel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Robin van Persie combined.
 
Yet on Thursday, when USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann named his 23-man roster for Brazil, Donovan and several other veteran players had been scratched and replaced with youngsters who have yet to prove their mettle in international competition, to the shock of fans across the country.
 
But while shocking, Klinsmann’s decision isn’t entirely unheard of: in fact, it’s more common than one would think. Major countries, including those favored to reach the semi-finals or even win the World Cup this summer, have made significant strides to add youth and energy to their sides.
 
England, looking to win the World Cup for the first time since 1966, have named eight players under age 24 to their 23-man roster, including 18-year-old Luke Shaw and 19-year-old Raheem Sterling.
 
The ever-menacing German team has 11 players age 24 or younger in its side, and has excluded from its ranks the likes of Mario Gomez and Piotr Trochowski in order to make way for a younger generation of players like Marco Reus and Mario Gotze.
 
Finally, let’s look at host country Brazil. 2010 captain Lucio, and standout midfielder Lucas are both missing from this year’s team sheet, as are veteran strikers Robinho and Luis Fabiano whose sensational careers are still very much in action.
 
The trend in the “youth-enization” of teams expands beyond international competition, with clubs like Liverpool in England, Atletico Madrid in Spain, and Bayern Munich in Germany gaining high esteem for utilizing younger players to great effect. So is Klinsmann’s decision understandable.
 
To a certain extent, yes it is. Young players, while often lacking the maturity to handle the pressures of such a high-stress environment as a World Cup, bring energy, creativity, and a certain level of fearlessness that comes with inexperience, and a USMNT that has often struggled of late to find ways to score in games that matter could really use that injection of pace and confidence.
 
But at a World Cup, each team needs a born leader. The USMNT has that in goalkeeper Tim Howard, but had it in Landon Donovan as well, and perhaps in a more meaningful way. It was Donovan’s stoppage time goal against Algeria that put the U.S. into the knockout stages of the World Cup in 2010, and his experience and leadership could prove to be just a valuable as the youth and energy he’s been left behind to accommodate.
 
The team’s performance in Brazil this summer, and how the decision to leave Landon Donovan behind effects that performance, could make or break Jurgen Klinsmann’s career as the USMNT manager.
 
But more importantly, it’s a sign that in world football, there’s truly no glory without gutsy desicions. Will this one pay off? The world will watch and see.