Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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All surprised out

    Iím assuming the rhetoric is the same everywhere else as it is in England Ė this is the most open World Cup ever, anyone can win it etc. In a column a few weeks ago I made the rather obvious point that there are always shocks and surprises at these tournaments. I even pointed to USA v Portugal as a possible one, but this was mere speculation, I never conceived that it could actually happen. As we all know now, they began on day one with Senegal turning over the defending champions, and then they kept on coming. Certainly it has been a World Cup full of surprises, more than the usual quota we have seen, but there are signs that the upsets may be starting to dry up. I think the forcing of Argentina, France and Portugal onto early flights to Buenos Aires, Paris and Lisbon has given the rest of the favourites a loud wake up call. Not only has it warned them of the perils of taking any team to lightly, but Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil and England all now have a greater chance to win the tournament. All now have their game face on.

    I know in this World Cup you arenít supposed to bet against anyone, but I really cannot see it going outside of those five even now. The second round, which as I write we are halfway through, is indicating that the knockout stages are a different tournament altogether. Spain advanced today after holding out against a spirited Irish display in Suwon. Playing through extra time with just ten men against a fierce onslaught that would have buckled many a Spanish team of years gone by, they clung on for penalties where there class ultimately told. Despite the Irish gallantry, Spain should really have been out of sight after an hour, often cutting through Ireland at will only for a bad touch or an offside flag to halt them. Still, they are in the quarterfinals on merit and look a good bet to go further.

    Yesterday England dismissed the Danes, who seemed to play the whole game with a massive inferiority complex. England simply bided their time and picked them off, to the extent that 3-0 up at half time and in total control they had the luxury of resting Scholes and Owen. This has been Englandís most comfortable victory in the knockout stages since they beat Paraguay 3-0 in the second round in 1986.

    Speaking of Paraguay, where were they on Saturday? Was that really the team who pulled off such a miraculous comeback against Slovenia to qualify ahead of South Africa? Germany must have been thanking their lucky stars. In the previous match they had the good fortune when down to ten men that the Cameroon players couldnít hit water if they fell out of a boat, and on Saturday they came up against a team that didnít want to play at all. Even so, they still left it late before making sure of a victory that was never in doubt.

    Brazil play Belgium tomorrow, but that result is seen as such a foregone conclusion that people all over England are bracing themselves to play Brazil in the quarter finals. A little harsh on Belgium, but it would take an upset off the scale of the ones we have seen so far to make it otherwise. In effect, Brazilís World Cup starts tomorrow, having completed three warm-up games disguised as first round fixtures with maximum points. Only Turkey gave them any competition, but some diabolical refereeing sorted that out. The three wins have boosted Brazilís already high confidence, and they look a completely different team to the one that stumbled through qualification. At last, they are playing football again, the way only they can, even if it is against the flimsiest of opposition. "My players are still not playing the way I tell them" coach Scolari has moaned. Good for them.

    The return to form of Ronaldo has been one of the most pleasing sights so far, even if he is not quite the dynamo that was so unstoppable circa 1996-1998. Rivaldo has also been brilliant in patches, apart from when he is collapsing to the floor as if pole-axed by the right hook that deflated Mike Tyson. We know they can showboat, but now they will be up against harder opposition in the knockout rounds, even if only marginally so against Belgium. Despite all this, they are worthy favourites, especially now the obstacles of Argentina and France have been removed from their side of the draw.

    So to the fifth and last most likely team, the Italians. Like France, Argentina and Portugal they lost a match they were expected to win in the first round, self-destructing in that mad five minutes against Croatia. Unlike their heavyweight rivals, they bounced back from it to qualify, scraping a draw with Mexico, with Alessandro Del Piero at last delivering on the big stage. If they had won their group as expected, they would have faced the United States in the second round. Instead they now step into the cauldron that will be Daejeon on Tuesday, against co-hosts South Korea. Many pundits in Britain are expecting Italy to crumble in the inevitably white hot atmosphere. However if any one of the big five teams is best equipped to handle that pressure it is the Italians, all veterans of the pressure cooker of Serie A. It might not be pretty, they may only just edge it, but I expect Italy to go through. Quality will out and Italy have as much quality as any team left in the ! tournament. I tipped them to win at the outset and I have seen nothing as yet to make me change my mind.

    Outside of those five it is hard to see who else could realistically go all the way. Incredibly one of Japan, Turkey or Senegal will be in the semi-finals, but I donít see them going any further. Iím sure that is further than any of those teams could have dreamed of progressing when the draw was made, especially the outstanding Senegal, whose golden goal clincher over Sweden was one of the goals of the tournament. One to perhaps keep an eye on though is Mexico. If as expected they beat the Americans on Monday, that will set up a quarter final clash with Germany, who look eminently beatable, especially of Mexico can slice their precise passes through the defence with the same efficiency as they did against Italy. Add into that the revenge factor for France 98, when they had the Germans on the ropes and all but out yet still conspired to cave in to a trademark German comeback.

    Either way, this incredible World Cup could be all surprised out. You very rarely get any great surprises in the knockout phases anymore Ė why should you? The teams there have qualified from their regions initially, then from their first round groups. You donít get bad teams at this stage, just some that are a notch in class above others. Brazil, England, Italy, Germany and Spain are that class this time. If the winner, you could go so far as to say even the two finalists, does not come from that group then that will be the biggest surprise of all.



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