Well, we’re down to the last eight, so it’s prediction time. For those of you that care about such things, I’m posting this tonight because I have to go to my parents’ house tomorrow and try to fix their computer (again). My intention is to be back here in time for the Germany match, but I’m not altogether certain that this will be a speedy process.
But enough of the drab minutae of my personal life. Quarter-final time is upon us, so it’s time to have a look forward and gaze into my crystal ball again. Looking back at my second round selections, I only called four of them correctly, though I did refuse to be drawn on England, and I said that Australia-Italy could go either way. So, I’m counting that as a successful round. At least FIFA got what they wanted in the last round. Unlike four years ago, when the “big” were mostly uncourteous enough to get themselves knocked out early on, this time all the big guns are present and correct (minus Holland and Spain, who were knocked out by, well, guns even bigger than theirs). There’s still a first-timer left, so FIFA can claim that the “romance” of the tournament is still alive, too. Personally, I’m not bothered about a large number of big countries still being left in. As we found four years ago, too many surprises later on makes for a pedestrian route to the final for those big guys that have managed to negotiate their way through. Not that I’d have objected if it had happened to England, of course, but sport makes hypocrites of us all. Once again, I need to remind you that taking any advice that I give out is a folly. Particularly if you’re considering having a bet. I may well make a persuasive argument, but it doesn’t mean I’m right.
Germany vs Argentina: This isn’t going to be easy, is it? Argentina are clearly an outstanding team. They look extraordinarily dangerous every time they go forward, and the doubts over their defensive capabilities seem to have been over-stated. Crespo looks sharp, and Messi looks awesome. But… there are possible areas that can be exploited. Their defence hasn’t been really tested in two of their matches, but against Mexico and Ivory Coast they were let off by a mixture of profligate finishing and bad luck. They could have been held by Ivory Coast and they could have lost to Mexico and, as we all know, Gabriel Heinze will a very lucky boy indeed to be on the pitch tomorrow. For Germany, it’s simply untrue to say that the pressure is somehow off them because expectations were low before it all started. Whatever self-confidence they have built up is likely to be fragile – it could vaporize at any moment. Their performances so far have (Poland aside) been very one-sided, and the crowd’s expectation levels will have changed. If Germany aren’t on top within twenty minutes, the crowd could well be on their back. Having said that, though… Germany are absolutely flying at the moment. Michael Ballack has been, for me, the best player of the tournament so far – he absolutely bossed the midfield against Sweden. They have, in Pobowlski and Klose, two excellent strikers who are both in form. I fancy that the first goal will be all-important. If Germany get it, they could well go on as they have before. If they don’t, they’re there for Argentina’s taking. One of these teams, I fancy, will win this by two or three goals. I’ve got a inkling that it’ll be Germany.
Italy vs Ukraine: Italy have been, considering the potentially damaging stories coming from home, pretty good so far. They were lucky to get a last minute penalty against against Australia, but, considering that they were also unlucky to lose Materazzi to yet another of this tournament’s bizarre red cards, they deserved to win. If they can get Luca Toni functioning in front of goal, they’ll be pretty close to the real deal. I wouldn’t expect too much excitement from Ukraine. They got through a penalty shoot-out against the dismally defensive Swiss, but Italy’s defence will be a different matter altogether, and they’ll need something special from Shevchenko to cause a surprise here, and I’m not sure that their line of supply is up to it. Italy with a bit to spare here. I’ll go for 2-0 again.
England vs Portgual: I rather fancy that many people reading this will have skipped straight to here. The pressure is on. Okay… Portugal first. Don’t take too much notice of the people carping on about Deco and Costinha not being available for this match. It would only make an enormous difference if they were playing with nine men. They have other good players that they can bring in to replace them. Portugal have, thus far, been one of the tournament’s oddities – they have scraped through every match by just about doing enough. Like Argentina, they were were pushed all the way by Mexico. They also struggled against Iran and Angola. Against the Dutch, well… they unsettled them. I’ll say that much. Their lack of discipline is something that England can possibly exploit, but they’ll have to play with more aggression than they have done so far. England need a big performance. There are plenty of problems with the way that they have played, but the ferocity of the media’s damnation of them has been astonishing. There are positive signs. As I said before the tournament, goals are coming (as they now need to be) from midfield. Apart from a couple of defensive errors (too many, granted), the defence has been pretty solid. Rooney is showing all the signs of coming back to his brilliant best. Having said that, I’m concerned that they might not be able to raise their game by enough to outwit the Portuguese. Portugal will try all the gamesmanship they can, especially to rile Rooney, whose commitment to the cause can sometimes boil over into outright anger. Again… this is too close to call. I’ll go for 0-0 or 1-1 at the end of normal time, but I can’t see anything between the sides.
Brazil vs France: Another tight one. Brazil, like some of the other teams here, haven’t really been tested yet. Ghana found ways through their defence, so why shouldn’t France? I’m still not completely sold on Franck Ribery, but Thierry Henry has the pace and experience to cause the likes of Cafu some serious problems. Brazil can’t afford any more sloppy defending. They were let off against Croatia, Australia and Ghana (the 3-0 scoreline against Ghana was particularly flattering), but this is a far stiffer test than they have faced so far. France had a poor start, as we all know, but their enormous improvement to overcome Spain was something to behold, and Gallas and Makelele looked plenty good enough to see off Ronaldo (if there has been a player more flattered by a tally of three goals in any major tournament, I’d be amazed). I think that this will be another tight one. Extra-time possibly and… penalties? I fancy France for this one, though that is solely on the basis of what I’ve seen of Brazil so far. If Brazil are up for this, they’ll be too strong for the French, but there’s history here, and I think that France’s experience might just cause an upset.