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Drama Queens

England and the United States booked their tickets to the knockout round, and the latter did so in the most dramatic of circumstances.

The Tottenham man wheels away after netting the eventual winner.

England took the lead through Jermain Defoe who was playing in his first start at the World Cup for the Three Lions in the 22nd minute after James Milner whipped in a delicious cross that Defoe tucked away nicely.  England held on for the remainder of the game, as did Slovenia, who were content to let the 3 points go as it looked set that they would advance in the runners up spot.  However, the American Dream was realized with some late drama at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

The United States needed a win against Algeria, and it looked as if all their chances would go begging until, in the 92nd minute the talismanic Landon Donovan popped up to tuck in a rebound to seal all three points and a top spot in the next round.

The Yanks looked set to go behind early again after Rafik Djebbour got through 1-on-1 with Tim Howard only to see his superb volley crash off the crossbar.  Rattled, the USA finally found their composure and eased their way into the game after creating some great chances, that, in all fairness, should have been tucked away.

Herculez Gomez tested Rais M’Bohli with a good shot to the near post, and later was put through on goal where could only send his shot into the body of M’Bohli, however he sent a shot/pass to Clint Dempsey who was lurking on the far post.  Dempsey put it in the back of the net, but it was deja vu for the Yanks as it was unjustly called offside.

Dempsey watches his shot rattle the inside of the post and then sky the followup sitter.

The USA backline looked shaky at times, especially early on when Jay Demerit looked suspect, but they all came very much into their own as the game wore on and Demerit put in an outstanding display with captain Carlos Bocanegra have a flyer as well.

Algeria were not without their chances as well, however.  They were looking to play on the counter attack all game, and looked very dangerous nearly every time they came into the final third.  Karim Ziani had one of the chances of the Algerian’s game when, in the 69th minute, he was seemingly in the clear, but from the corner of the box sent his low driven effort wide of the post.

Nadir Belhadj was fairly effective bombing down the left side of the pitch, as his left foot sent in some rasping crosses that the Algerian front line couldn’t make anything of.

Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu looked like the most natural pairing in midfield, and, despite the fact that Edu still gave the ball away here and there, he compensated with his all around solid work in defense and in the build up.  Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley also combined notably on more than a few occasions as they both looked lethal exchanging passes and making clever runs.

Etched onto the players faces is the importance of Donovan's late goal. Seriously...look at Feilhaber's face. You can't find anybody happier on the planet.

Benny Feilhaber replaced Herculez Gomez at half time, and he was an excellent change as he held the ball well, penetrated the back line and played an overall smart game.  Edson Buddle came on for Maurice Edu in the 64th minute and also played a great role as his first touches were crisp and nearly scored with a headed effort five minutes after being introduced.  DeMarcus Beasley was the last substitute to be introduced, but he failed to make any significant impression on the game.  To be fair, he came on in the 81st minute and saw limited time on the ball.

The result means the United States top Group C and England will sit in the runners up spot.  Slovenia were on the brink of sneaking into the knockout round, but Landon Donovan’s goal crushed any hopes they had.  The Algerians played an interesting game, and began looking like they were playing for a draw; a result which would have brought them nothing in terms of reward other than personal satisfaction.

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United States – Algeria Preview

Three points are there for whoever wants to take them.  Both teams are dying to advance from this group, as the United States has the expectations riding on their back and Algeria would relish the thought of an underdog victory.  Albeit, Algeria would need to defeat the United States by at least 2 goals to make it.  Still though, Algeria are a wounded animal and won’t be giving anything away without a fight.

United States vs. Algeria

Four years of World Cup qualifying comes down to 90 minutes in Pretoria tomorrow.  Every game played in the stadium thus far in the tournament has produced a victor, and both sides will be gunning hard for the spoils.  A victory for the United States sees them through to the next round, but in first or second spot remains to be decided by the England – Slovenia game.  Should the United States draw, only a Slovenian victory will still see them through to the next round.  Should the England game come to a draw, the difference will come to goals scored (which, right now, the United States has the edge in).

Bob Bradley’s team selection shouldn’t be too much of a mystery except for the two toss-up positions.  With Ricardo Clark

Ghezzal (right) will look to get on the scoresheet against the States.

finally being seen as less effective, he may very well be replaced by Maurice Edu who put in a decent show with Slovenia.  Edu would bring more composure and experience on a bigger stage than Torres would and is more of a box-to-box midfielder than Clark.

The other position is alongside Jozy Altidore, who has yet to get on the score sheet in South Africa.  Edson Buddle is tipped as the favorite, as Robbie Findley wasn’t particularly amazing against Slovenia and Buddle is still fresh in the memory with his two goals over Australia.  Buddle should hook up well with Jozy, however, it might be slightly concerning that they play a very similar style of play.  Still, there is no denying that Buddle has talent, and Bradley could well opt for him tomorrow.

However, as Group C has learned, Algeria aren’t the easiest of opponents.  They possess great pace and the technical ability to

Michael Bradley will size up against Karim Ziani tomorrow in what will be a crucial match up.

break on the counter, something which Slovenia exploited very well during their match against the States.  Also, there is the worrying fact that  Abdelkader Ghezzal is back from suspension.  Karim Matmour and Ghezzal are both players love to find the soft pockets between the midfield and back lines, something that was a weak spot for the Yanks against Slovenia.

Nadir Belhadj is an obvious man to mark as his pace and ball skills have been a joy to watch in the Group thus far and he could have his way with slower defenders like those in the United States back line.

Key Match Ups –

Michael Bradley vs. Karim Ziani

Steve Cherundolo vs. Nadir Belhadj

Prediction – The United States has the quality to take the Algerian side, but an early goal from the Desert Foxes could, once again, put the States in a hard place.  The first 20 minutes will be very key to the remainder of the game.

United States 2 – 0 Algeria



England – Slovenia Preview

All will be left on the line tomorrow as every team in Group C battles for a place in the knockout round in South Africa.  With England taking on Slovenia and the United States playing Algeria in simultaneous games, there could well be fireworks by the games’ end.

England – Slovenia

Prior to the tournament England were runaway favorites to stomp their group.  With a massive abundance of talent, a superb manager and a nearly spotless qualifying run, the Three Lions were expected to do big things in Britain (that said, when aren’t they expected to do big things in Britain).  However, a drab team lacking ideas, an outburst from a former captain and a couple of suspensions are surely weighing heavily on the mind of every player and personnel in the England camp.

Two English fans sit dejected after the United States game. Irony? They're drinking American beer.

It was bad enough that they played their two games with little to no drive, and were desperately short of attacking menace, but now John Terry came out and declared that the team would sit down with the Italian and tell him, no holds barred, what they wanted the team to be…seriously?  The team is not a democracy.  The manager has the final say and holds the supreme authority, a point Capello was adamant to make.  John Terry’s “very, very big mistake” was almost an ominous statement from the manager, as he cooly told the press that there would be repercussions for what was said.  Terry has since apologized, and Capello must be satisfied…but that is hardly the end of his problems.

Terry was allegedly going to call for the inclusion of Joe Cole at said meeting, before none of his team mates backed him up.  But unfortunately for Capello, Terry may be right.  Joe Cole possesses great technical skill and contains the immeasurable quality of the “X” factor.  Joe Cole can make plays that other players simply cannot make.  He can beat a man (something seriously lacking right now for the Three Lions), he is creative and he can find a killer pass.  Question is: Will Capello swallow his pride and include J. Cole?  Probably not…

As they have demonstrated, the Slovenians are not to be taken lightly.  They have all the necessary attributes to make England’s last game a nightmare, should the Brits not come with their “A” game.  Milivoje Novakovic is a striker who can cause problems, especially for the rag-tag center back pairing that will likely be Matty Upson and John Terry.  Terry is probably mentally awry and Upson hasn’t been asked to perform on such a big stage.

Valter Birsa celebrates his stunning opener against the Yanks.

Robert Koren and Valter Birsa will make up the bulk of midfield, and, like Novakovic, won’t be push overs.  On paper, England’s midfield should wipe the floor with them, but if recent results have told us anything, England’s form tomorrow is in a grab bag.  Koren likes to pull the strings in midfield and Birsa is capable of changing the game if the stars align.

Most unfortunately for England, if they keep up their lackluster attacking play, they won’t find a way through the tough Slovenian defense.  Anchored by veteran keeper Samir Handanovic, the Slovenians play a water tight defense that the Americans were fortunate to make headway on.  The Britsh will need to fire on all cylinders to break into the game, however, if they can manage to score first, the Three Lion’s attitude will change entirely.  If they concede first…oh dear.

Prediction – The English may finally manage to squeeze a few goals out, but the back line will be suspect, as will David James. Wayne Rooney’s form will be paramount to their success.  If they can advance out of the group, a new English side will be seen.

England 1 – 1  Slovenia



Tim Howard’s South Africa Diary

Courtesy of FoxSoccer…

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Tim Howard’s South Africa Diary

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The World Cup has been everything I expected, and more.

I’ve been so incredibly impressed with the way South Africa has rallied together. When I’ve come here the past couple of years I’ve done the things you come here to do. I’ve done the safaris, I went to Soweto, and I‘ve done all the sightseeing things, but to really see all the African people embrace the World Cup, it’s been a really cool experience. To see what this means to them is something else. It’s corporate in a lot of ways, but it’s also about the heart of the people and their passion for soccer.

Tim Howard reflects on his time in South Africa.

From an off-the-field standpoint, the place where we’re staying, the morale, the guys, the group, it has been one hundred percent perfect. We’re enjoying ourselves. It’s been a long time being away, but with all the games on, and all of us huddled around the TV watching all the games, we’ve had a chance to really bond.

It’s different from (the 2006 World Cup at) Germany in the sense that, logistically speaking, the hotels and the families and where they’re all staying is different, and we’re on our own. It’s not like staying in the downtown city center (in Hamburg), where you can just put your sunglasses on, walk out and go shopping. It’s more of a training camp mentality. We’re here, bunkered in, we enjoy our meals and enjoy our training, and to a certain extent, for better of worse, we’re a lot more focused. There’s not a lot of external things going on. There’s a lot fewer distractions. The guys are playing FIFA, a few of the boys are out and fishing in the lake, there are poker games, we’re watching a lot of the games. Our schedule is pretty straightforward. It’s broken up pretty well because we’ve got a workout session in the morning, then lunch, then we rest. After that we’ve got training in the afternoon. There’s downtime, but there’s enough to keep us active.

This team, with the additions that were made just prior to the World Cup, is probably one of the better teams I’ve been on in terms of no egos, really good guys, guys who are eager and hungry and ready to work. All the really good things you can say about guys on the team has been that way.

It’s a very young group, but sometimes with that it can go either way. They see it as their chance to shine, they internalize it, they get greedy and start acting a certain way and take it as a negative thing. We haven’t had that with this group. The younger guys who have come into this group have been gung ho for this team and do anything they can. Not just on the field, but off the field, and it’s been awesome.

I’ve watched quite a few World Cup games, just like everybody else. I’ve been pulling particularly for the Everton guys in the group. Holland, Nigeria, South Africa and Australia are really the ones I’ve been focused on, but I’ve watched every game and it’s been a pretty incredible World Cup because you just don’t know who’s going to win each game.

One of the toughest moments was seeing Tim Cahill get a red card. I was devastated for him. I spoke to him afterward. He was

Cahill sees red in the Socceroos' opener with Germany.

beside himself, couldn’t figure out why or how he got the red. He’s someone I’ve grown close with and we’ve talked about this for years, and throughout the build-up, so I know what it meant to him so it was tough.

Looking back at the England game, we really felt good about what we could accomplish in that game. Beforehand, guys weren’t scared. Guys weren’t nervous, they were ready for it. We fought back from a goal down and played a good game against a very good team in a game I know people had been waiting months to see.

What a lot of people remember about that game is my injury. I didn’t know what the next day would bring, but I was going to give myself every shot to play against Slovenia. When I spoke to the trainers, they told me when it’s a rib injury it’s something you’re going to feel for a few weeks, so once I knew that it was about figuring out how to manage it.

The next morning was crazy. I kept trying to roll over in the middle of the night and it was nearly impossible. I had to stay on my left side. It wasn’t a surprise. I knew it was going to be bad but you deal with it. I was definitely in pain, but I just tried to take as many pain meds as I could to deal with it. It wasn’t the first time this season where I had to deal with something like that. With Everton late in the year, I had a back injury late in the year that had me thinking for the first time in a long time that I might have to come out of the game. It rocked me so bad that I was literally laid flat on my back in bed the next morning and I called from my phone on the night stand and told the team I couldn’t physically make it to practice. Walking down the stairs, walking to the stairs – it was a joke. I was dragging my feet. It was terrible. I couldn’t stand up straight. I was struggling. But I still played the next game because I don’t like missing games.

It was a special game, and for me, it was my first World Cup game. I try not to let my mind wander in those moments, like during the national anthem, but it’s hard not to when you’re playing in your first World Cup and the anthem comes on. I just tried not getting caught up in it, but there were a few moments like that.

We went into the Slovenia game with a lot of confidence, but to go down early the way we did was tough. In the second half, instinct took over. Our backs were literally against the wall. We were 45 minutes from our World Cup basically being over. The way we responded was great, and it gives us a lot of confidence going into the Algeria match.

The muggings at Ellis Park Stadium.

At this level, when you go down in any game 2-0, and you get back to level, you have to feel fortunate. We would love to win, and we would have loved for that (third) goal to stand in order to assure ourselves of a spot in the second round. The other side of that is that we were down two goals and we came back, we‘re still fighting and we still have a chance, so we have to keep it in perspective.

As far as the call on Maurice Edu’s goal, initially we were upset by it because it’s natural to be emotional after the game, but very quickly we re-focused on and had to put it behind us. I certainly understand it from a fans perspective that it’s not something you’re going to forget easily. We realize that we still have it all to play for, and if we win on Wednesday, we’ll qualify.

The crowd was great for the Slovenia match. I’ve played 50-something times for the (United States) and not once do I remember a whole, entire national anthem sung by the whole crowd. When they played the anthem and we were singing, it was being sung back at us, and it was a pretty incredible moment.

We’ve been in games where we’ve needed to win the game and it’s been a big game and big occasion. All we need is that win, just like last year (against Egypt in the Confederations Cup). The Egypt game is in recent memory, but you can go back to the Gold Cup final in 2007, that was a must-win, and the Confederations Cup semifinal was also a must-win. We’ve got that experience and it can only help us.

The experience at this World Cup has been even more special because my parents and brother have been here to enjoy it and experience it with me. When it comes to youth soccer in America, families have to give up a lot. Most other siblings have to sacrifice because you’re driving around to tournaments all over the country. Moms and dads have to sacrifice and drop everything they’re doing on the weekends. That’s how you spend most of your weekends for a good part of your youth. On the road, in hotels, playing in youth soccer tournaments, so it’s really special to have them all come and enjoy this experience and kind of be in the ultimate and the pinnacle of the sport. From all those days traveling around New Jersey, and up and down the East Coast, to youth soccer tournaments. It almost feels like it all paid off.

– Tim Howard



Daylight Robbery

The United States were denied a game winning goal in the 87th minute by Rangers midfielder Maurice Edu, but was called back to due to offsides…maybe.  Nobody is entirely sure what the call was.  Edu was clearly onsides and, if anything, Michael Bradley was being held down in the box for what should have been a penalty.

However, life isn’t fair, and quite often, neither is football.  Koman Coulibaly in his first officiation of a World Cup game put in a less than admirable display as he frequently missed calls and came up with bizarre bookings for both sides.

Jose Torres replaced Ricardo Clark in midfield after the latter failed to impress in any sense during the England game.  Robbie Findley continued to start alongside Altidore for the second time in as many games.

In one of the most predictable actions, the United States allowed another early goal as Valter Birsa hit a cracker from 25 yards out that left Tim Howard rooted to the spot as it found the corner of the net.  The United States defense left Birsa with far too much space and he let fly with a perfect strike to put the Slovenians in front.

The United States was out of sync for much of the half and only started to find rhythm in the 40th minute or so when Clint Dempsey played a teasing ball into the area and Miso Brecko made a vital interception with Landon Donovan lurking.

It was short lived however as the Slovenians broke on a counter attack and Novakovic slide the ball expertly to Zlatan Ljubijankic who did well to sneak past the offside trap and slip the ball under the onrushing Tim Howard to leave the Americans in a very bad place.

Goal scorer Landon Donovan celebrates with Clint Dempsey.

After the half, Bob Bradley replaced Jose Torres with Maurice Edu and Robbie Findley with Benny Feilhaber.  Edu proved to be a great change, as the Rangers midfielder snuffed out attacks and played well for his time on the pitch.  Feilhaber was decent.  He didn’t play badly but failed to make a serious impression on the game.

The Yanks started the half ideally as Landon Donovan, now in a more advanced position, attacked the goal and ripped a shot near post past Samir Handanovic.  Then the game really begun.

The United States began continually pushing into the Slovenian half, which was dangerous considering how lethal the latter looked on the counter attack.  Bradley made his last sub in the 80th minute by bringing on supersub Herculez Gomez for Oguchi Onyewu.  This meant the States moved to a 3-4-3 and really began to attack.

This type of pressure paid dividends as the coach’s son, Michael Bradley slotted after being played in by Jozy Altidore.  Cherundolo looked long into the box and Altidore rose highest to nod the ball into the path of Bradley who almost put the ball over the goal as he smashed the ball into the net.

After storming back into the game, the Yanks pushed hard, but were constantly kept in check with the breaking Slovenians who constantly found space going forward with only 3 Americans in the back line.

Maurice Edu cannot believe his goal was disallowed.

It was all for nought however, as in the 86th minute, Jozy Altidore won a freekick on the edge of the box after being bundled over.  Landon Donovan swung it in and Maurice Edu finished with aplomb from six yards out.  The goal was quickly called for something, most probably offsides, but replays show that this was clearly not the case.  Furthermore, replays suggest a penalty could have been given for how Bradley and others too were handled in the box during the kick.

The match dragged out with no more drama, but the biggest question will be asked of referee Koman Coulibaly, who was fairly bizarre all game.  Will he face any repercussions?  Time will tell.

The result means that should England beat Algeria today, the United States MUST win against Algeria on Wednesday and hope for a winner from England-Slovenia.  If they draw, it will come down to goal difference and become a matter of how badly the United States could beat Algeria.



American Revolution Revisted – Group C

Group C –

England

United States

Algeria

Slovenia

In Group C, many pundits will be speculating that it should the final standings for the group will look just as they were drawn.  However, injuries, histories, and inspirational performances could see some shock upsets and turn this group on its head.  It is by no means a sure thing, however, this group could be quietly surprising.

Slovenia – The Slovenians qualification campaign should be considered a success in and of itself, however, as they find

Robert Koren will give the Slovenian faithful hope...if there is any to be had.

themselves underdogs in a more experienced group, they will need to rely on the talents of Robert Koren, Miso Brecko and Milivoje Novakovic to carry them through.  Slovenia turned the tables on what was looking bound to be a lackluster qualifying campaign when they beat Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland to take second place which qualified them for the two leg play off against Russia.  A playoff that they surprisingly won and Slovenia became a topic of discussion for football fans everywhere.  One of the biggest bonuses for the Slovenians is their spirit under Matjaz Kek.  The manager has instilled a fighting spirit in his side second to none and could be essential to their success (if any).

Algeria – Similar to Slovenia, Algeria were never given much of a chance to make it to South Africa, yet, they could still have a word in Group C.  After playing in one of the more passionate games football has seen in some time, Algeria ousted Egypt to make it to the World Cup Finals.  Yazid Mansouri, Nadir Belhadj and Madjid Bougherra will be looking to add experience and skill to the starting line up.  If they have more passionate displays like the one against Egypt in them, then they may have a chance at escaping Group C.  Rafik Saïfi has been their go-to in the past, however his age will probably be a factor as they turn their attention towards Siena hitman Abdelkader Ghezzal to bag a couple goals as well.  However, against the stout defense of England that could be a tall order.  That said, the injury hit defense of the United States could prove prime real estate for a striker looking to sneak in and nick a few goals.

United States – The Yanks won’t feel aggrieved with their draw as second place should be fully within their grasp.  Injuries will

The Haitian-American hitman will relish the chance to show off his skills.

hinder their chances as Charlie Davies didn’t even make the squad, and key defensive figures Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Jay Demerit are all question marks over fitness.  The United States will bank on veterans Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore (only 20 years old) and Tim Howard.  All have European experience and plenty of international experience between them.  England will obviously be the biggest challenge for the Yanks, but, possibly to their benefit, they will play England first and get them out of the way.  Their front line is now barren after the omission of Charlie Davies and will rest heavily on the shoulders of Jozy Altidore.  Altidore has notched some impressive goals against the likes of opponents such as Spain and has demonstrated his scoring ability in qualifying.  Scoring veteran Dempsey may be moved up alongside Altidore with Holden playing out right, but the question remains…who will replace Dempsey and Altidore when they get tired?

England – The Three Lions will finally have a chance at making a legitimate run in South Africa.  They are loaded in all areas of the pitch and could see themselves in the semifinals or (hold your breath) the final.  Their biggest problem in South Africa should be the striking department.  That is, who partners Wayne Rooney?  They have plenty of able candidates but which will actually perform at the Cup?  With players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, James Milner and Jermain Defoe, it’s hard to imagine them not making a good run out of their squad.  Capello has instilled a winning attitude absent the England camp for years after bad stints in management.  All things considered, they should advance out of their group, but their biggest competition in the group should be the Yanks.  Unfortunately for England, that game comes first and there is a small possibility of an upset as the Lions won’t have much of an idea of how much firepower Bob Bradley’s men are packing.  That said, England will be advancing, one way or another.

Prediction – Just like they were drawn…

1. England

2. United States

3. Algeria

4. Slovenia