Ranking the Remaining World Cup Contenders
That should change in the quarterfinals, though.
Brazil's showdown against the Netherlands on Friday promises to be thrilling. As does the Argentina-Germany game on Saturday. And don't count out Spain-Paraguay as a potential classic. Paraguay may be unheralded, but their defense is strong and... oh, who am I kidding? That game's going to be awful. Paraguay couldn't score with Tara Reid on a bender. Spain is going to rip them apart.
Here's how I rank the remaining eight contenders for the World Cup trophy.
Brazil is the international soccer equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers. They're the most talented side in the world and they always have the biggest targets on their back. But when I rank them No. 1 here, it's not based on reputation. They deserve to be called the favorite based on their performances so far.
Brazil came out of the "Group of Death" unscathed. They easily handled Ivory Coast, overcame early stumbles to beat North Korea and coasted against Portugal because, well, both teams were already through and neither one cared about the game. In the Round of 16 they slowly unraveled everyone's favorite sleeper team, Chile, to bring their record in the tournament to 3-0-1 and set up a showdown with the Netherlands -- I can't wait.
Brazil has taken some flak for not playing beautiful soccer, but what makes them flawed in the eyes of their samba-loving countrymen is the thing that makes them favorites in my opinion: defense.
Lucio, Juan, Maicon and Michel Bastos are a formidable challenge for any attacking side, but they can also wander up top and cause trouble -- Maicon has a goal and an assist in the tournament, and Juan has a goal as well. This makes them unique. Other teams have one or two defenders who venture forward (Sergio Ramos of Spain, for instance), but Brazil is the only team with four, and they're deadly because of it.
How do you account for an eighth man in the attack when you never know who he's going to be or where he's going to come from? You can't. It's terrifying.
Combine Brazil's counter attacking ability with the flash of Luis Fabiano, the brilliance of Elano (who has been terrific all tournament), the steely nerves of Julio Cesar and the underrated determination of Kaka (he quietly has three assists) and you've got a team that can go pound for pound with any side in the world.
I'll be surprised if Brazil doesn't win it all.
Spain is one-dimensional offensively -- David Villa has scored four of their five goals -- but it's a great dimension to have. Villa is without a doubt the most dangerous player in the tournament right now. He's reached soccer nirvana. There's no other way to describe it.
When the ball is at Villa's feet it's like watching something from another planet. There goes the alien, splitting double teams at will on his way to the goal. There goes the alien, sliding a perfect shot into the upper 90. There goes the alien, scoring on a chip shot from midfield. It's unreal. Is there anything this guy can't do?
A week ago I would not have ranked Spain second. They couldn't produce a goal when Switzerland barricaded the goal, and they allowed a goal to Chile when Chile was down to 10 men. They looked shaky and uncertain, especially in defense. But the way Spain handled Portugal was impressive. Beating Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. the way they did -- 1-0, with relative ease -- makes me think they've found their groove.
Many of the teams on this list had laughable opponents in the Round of 16 (c'mon, was Slovakia really going to do anything?), but Portugal was no easy matchup for Spain. This was a team ranked third in the world, a team that opened the flood gates against North Korea and won by seven goals. Yet, the Spanish defense made Portugal, specifically Ronaldo, look impotent. Carlos Puyol and Iker Casillas were terrific -- so were Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. Together, they limited the Portuguese to just nine shots on goal and held a clean sheet.
With the defense firing on all cylinders and Villa playing like a magician on PCP, this team is going to be hard to stop. If they play Brazil in the final, expect greatness.
I'm tempted to put Argentina here. In fact, more than a few of my friends said I should. But every time I bet against Germany, they torch me. They're such a talented, cohesive squad. It's difficult to imagine anyone other than the world's best beating them right now. And I don't think Argentina is the world's best.
The German attack can start in any number of ways (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Mesut Ozil are all capable table setters), but it always ends the same: with a goal from Miroslav Klose.
If Brazil is the soccer equivalent of the Lakers, then Klose's on the wrong team -- because he's Kobe Bryant.
Like Kobe, Klose is a premier offensive player (he has scored 50 goals in 99 international appearances). Like Kobe, he has learned to be effective in the latter stages of his career (Klose has two goals this tournament: the first a ferocious header against Australia, the second the go-ahead goal against England in the Round of 16). And like Kobe, Klose is an intense competitor (his nose for goal is legendary, as is his temper).
Klose is a dangerous player, but he's hardly the only threat for Germany.
Lukas Podolski is a master finisher as well -- as evidenced by this laser strike against England -- and 20-year-old Thomas Muller has really come into his own this tournament, leading the Germans with three goals and three assists.
Germany's attack is one of the world's most lethal, but I'm worried about their back line. Keeper Manuel Neuer is fine enough in goal, but Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker are prone to lapses, as we saw at the tail end of the first half against England. I don't trust them. I have a bad feeling they'll concede a goal at the worst possible time.
If this ranking was based exclusively on offense, Germany would be at the top. But it's not. I think Germany will knock off Argentina on Saturday, but they will ultimately be undone by Spain in the semifinal.
Maradona's odd, hands-on approach is working. Argentina is 4-0 and has outscored its opponents by nine goals (they've scored 11 goals this tournament, their opponents: just two).
Offensively, Argentina is a very, very good squad.
Lionel Messi has yet to score, but he's been setting up a gold rush of opportunities for his teammates. Gonzalo Higuain is reaping the biggest benefit -- the 22-year-old striker is tied with David Villa for Golden Boot honors with four goals -- but bulldog Carlos Tevez is getting in on the action as well -- Tevez scored two goals against Mexico, one of which was more than a little controversial.
Messi, Higuain, Tevez and super-sub Diego Milito are all threats to score at the drop of a hat -- as is defender Gabriel Heinze. They've been superb so far. Together, they are like liquid on the field. They flow so well and seep into every crack. But I'm worried that Argentina haven't been challenged yet. They've beaten Nigeria, South Korea, Greece and Mexico (hardly a murderer's row of opponents), and they haven't played from behind yet.
I also have a bad feeling about their defense.
I worry about Martin Dimichelis, Argentina's center back. He makes all kinds of mistakes -- from mistimed challenges to wayward passes at the back. None of them have come back to bite him yet, but he's a disaster waiting to happen.
The strikers of Greece and Nigeria may not be hungry enough to take advantage of Dimichelis' errors, but Miroslav Klose is a wolf. He'll gobble up those chances like Viggo Mortensen in The Road. And when he does, you know there's no way he's going to miss.
Germany's defenders are flawed, but Dimichelis is more flawed. For that reason, I'm giving Germany a slight edge in Saturday's game.
This was another tough call. Many will pull the undefeated card in defense of the Oranje, but, like Argentina, they haven't been tested yet. The most difficult team they've played is Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Uruguay went wire to wire with France before France self-combusted and won a hard-fought group game against Mexico (who, had they beaten Uruguay, would have won the group and avoided Argentina). They also beat South Africa, who had the ferocious vuvuzela army behind them.
In terms of strengths, I really like Uruguay's defensive cohesiveness (they've surrendured just one goal in the tournament) and Diego Forlan's versatility up top -- the wily 31-year-old has two goals and an assist. There aren't many strikers who are able to drop back into the midfield to create opportunities for themselves and others. Forlan is one of them. I love how good he is on the ball and how well he sets up his teammates. He's been the underrated player of the tournament in my eyes.
Talent-wise, Uruguay doesn't have many standouts. In fact, they only have two: Forlan and on-again, off-again striker Luis Suarez. But they have great chemistry. They communicate well and they trust each other, and that's important.
Intangibles aren't enough to bring home a World Cup trophy, but I think Uruguay will give Brazil a run for its money in the semifinals.
There are a few reasons I put the Netherlands this low. Let's get into them...
One, as I mentioned above, is that they haven't been challenged yet. I realize Slovakia is a good team and that they knocked Italy out, but this is their first World Cup as an independent nation. They're not exactly Portugal -- or Chile, or Mexico for that matter.
Another reason is nerves. There is so much build up when the Netherlands plays. They're expected to do well, but there's also an undercurrent of anxiety. Their fans are so passionate and so angst-ridden it makes me think they were Cleveland fans in another life. They're always waiting for the other shoe to drop -- and it usually does.
In 2006, the Dutch were eliminated by Portugal in the Round of 16. In 2002, they failed to qualify. And in 1998, they lost in the semifinals to Brazil, the same team that they are now facing in the quarterfinals.
Even in the days of Total Football, the Dutch weren't able to bring home a title.
With both history and the weight of expectations hanging like an anvil from their shoulders, I don't think the Dutch are capable of pulling off the upset against Brazil, especially because of...
Reason No. 3 I don't like the Netherlands to advance: Robin Van Persie.
This guy has to be the most annoying non-superstar who thinks he's a superstar ever. Van Persie talks about how he belongs at the top with names like Cristiano Ronaldo and gets into spats with teammates like he runs the place, but do you know how many World Cup goals he has produced in his career? Two. That's right. Two.
I can name off the top of my head the number of players who have scored two goals in a game this tournament, let alone in their World Cup careers. David Villa, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez, Carlos Tevez, Thomas Muller...
Who does van Persie think he is?
Oh, that's right: The second coming of Marco van Basten.
Well, he's not.
From everything I've seen, he's a griping non-entity on the international stage. He expects others to create for him and when they do, he blows it. What a waste of talent.
As much as I like Arjen Robben, Nigel De Jong and Wesley Sneijder, this team is going to be eliminated at the hands of Brazil on Friday, leading to more wallowing from Oranje fans and more gratuitous bouts of entitlement from van Persie.
The Kings of the Tie have advanced! And if you saw it coming I'd like you to make my World Cup picks next time around, because every pick on my bracket seems to be a disaster -- case in point, I picked South Africa to advance out of the group stage. But I digress.
Paraguay's record so far is 2-2-0, and one of those wins came by virtue of a penalty shootout with Japan. If we change that result to a tie -- which for some reason I feel at liberty to do -- Paraguay is 1-3-0. That's not bad, but it's not exactly good either.
Technically, they've never lost. But they've also never beaten anyone in regulation other than Slovakia.
They're a juggernaut, this team!
I joke around, but really Paraguay is a solid team. Like Uruguay, they play well together and don't kill themselves by making mistakes. In fact, if Uruguay and Paraguay played each other I think we'd have to take the first 90 minutes off and just come back for extra time. That's how boring it would be.
I like teams with heart and comraderie, but I also think Paraguay is headed for a buzz saw. Spain is playing really well right now. As cohesive as Paraguay's defense has been, I don't think they have what it takes to stop David Villa. He's just too talented.
It's been a good showing for Paraguay, but they'll be going home on Saturday.
Congratulations, you made it to the end of the list!
As a bonus, here's a list of things I don't like about Ghana (in no particular order):
- They're 2-1-1 in the World Cup and have scored just one more goal than they've allowed (4-3).
- Their defense looked horrendous in the second half against the U.S.
- They've scored two of their four goals on penalty kicks.
- Their best player (Asamoah Gyan) and best midfielder (Kwadwo Asamoah) both have names that sound like Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. And I can't stand the Raiders.
- They lay on the field during the closing minutes of a close game and sit on stretchers.
- Kevin-Prince Boateng's neck tattoo.
- The fact that Kevin-Prince Boateng is German, and his brother plays for the German team but he plays for Ghana.
- Kevin-Prince Boateng.
- The fact that they're going to be annihilated by Uruguay when it could have been the U.S. getting annihilated instead. Man, I hate Ghana!
Enjoy the quarterfinals, guys!