Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Gold Cup - Group Stage Wrapup
That gigantic sigh of relief you heard around 11 PM Central Daylight Time on Wednesday was that of the CONCACAF board of directors when Carlos Batres blew his whistle to end Mexico-Panama, the final game of the Gold Cup group stage. It meant that Mexico had finished second in Group C, and would be playing Costa Rica in the quarterfinals.
So what? Well, you see, the Gold Cup isn't like other tournaments. We believe in, shall we say, organzing things as carefully as possible. Which means we don't draw the teams into groups: we place them exactly where we want them, to insure maximum attendance and the best possible matchups in the knockout rounds. In some circles this is called "the fix"; we just call it good business. Anyway, this time around the schedule was set up so that the USA and Mexico couldn't possibly meet before the Final. The only way it could happen was the unthinkable--either team would have to finish third in their group.
No problem there. But the committee also saw fit to put both Panama and Honduras in with Mexico, which meant, unlike the USA, the Tri couldn't just coast. And when Hugo Sánchez turned up with a team well off form, they found themselves nosediving right into that cursed third-place spot. Even a draw with Panama would have dropped our two flagship teams together in--horrors!--the quarterfinals.
But luck was with us, and I do mean luck. Mexico looked terrible, and were thoroughly outplayed. But Osvaldo Sánchez pulled a blinder, the canaleros somehow missed several easy chances, and the Tri squeaked out a 1:0 win on a set piece. So the confederation is safe for autocracy, at least until the next near-fiasco.
But although I love to bash the Gold Cup, this year's edition has been pretty good, in fact the best in recent memory. Group B was a washout, but Groups A and C produced any number of exciting games. Best of all (and hardest to believe), the refereeing has been, with a few comical exceptions, fairly solid. I'm not sure what we did to deserve this--maybe it was that human sacrifice at the full moon to Chuck Blatter's weight loss consultant? Anyway, just cross your fingers for the quarterfinals, as follows:
and hope the teams don't as usual die of exhaustion before the tournament ends. Here's the group stage wrapup:
After so many good games in Group A, a dud was inevitable. Costa Rica came into the match against Guadeloupe needing a win, and determined to get it any way possible. They pressed, marked tightly, hacked a bit, and generally closed down the game. The result was the proverbial ill-tempered match, with the only goal coming on a set piece, Walter Centeno's free kick in the 14th minute. In a way it was a shame the goal came so early, because it freed the ticos to play defense. Guadeloupe had no good chances from open play, their only look coming in the 20th minute after a free kick, when David Sommeil, alone in front of net, shot weakly and right at José Francisco Porras. Even Premiership defenders can't be used to being unmarked six yards from goal.
The game showed up Guadeloupe's weaknesses. They don't have much up front--striker Richard Socrier of Brest (2D France) has played three full games without looking remotely like a threat. Cédrick Fiston, who had a good game in the opener against Haiti, drifts in and out. They're best when they attack on the wings, but don't have the player who can make a difference in a tight game. Stephane Auvray, their best midfielder, plays too deep to propel the attack. Of course, they can just keep shooting from 30 yards out like they did to score against Canada--right back Michael Tacalfred tried it this time, forcing a diving save from Porras.
But the game showed up Costa Rica's weaknesses as well. This isn't the freewheeling CR we've come to know and love, and they too have a power shortage in the front line. Álvaro Saborio isn't a bad finisher, but he has trouble creating space for himself. Rolando Fonseca looks past his sell-by date. Centeno has had an excellent tournament, his best run of play in some time, but he doesn't have enough help. Of the other midfielders, only Michael Barrantes has been useful. Both teams made the quarterfinals, and good for them, but both are likely to go out next round.
With the Costa Rica-Guadeloupe result in the books, Haiti needed a win against Canada, and Canada needed only a draw. So the northerners played it cagey, slow-paced, without much attacking thrust. Haiti were a little tentative themselves, so although there was plenty of space, no one was doing much with it. The game turned on a three-minute sequence shortly after the half-hour. First Paul Staltieri sent a floater to the far post, over the head of intended target Rob Friend, but right to Dwayne DeRosario. Keeper Gabart Fenelon left a little space at the post, and DeRosario took all of it with a perfectly-placed left-footed volley. Then Issey Nakajima-Farran (is that the best name since Jan Vennegoor op Hessselink, or what?) drew a borderline penalty from Pierre-Richard Bruny, DeRosario converted (barely), and that was that. Haiti kept up the attack and created a few chances, but Pat Onstad, with his trademark impeccable positioning, was equal to everything.
A shame for Haiti, who played some of the more exciting football in the group, certainly more exciting than Costa Rica. Despite some superb individual performances, they were just a little short in overall quality. But this team looks good enough to make the final 12 come World Cup time, and we look forward to seeing more.
For Canada it's onward and upward, with a well-deserved first place, their very first in the Gold Cup (unless you count coin flips). The win over Haiti was a real professional job: against a tricky opponent, they played accurate, careful football, few fouls, not too much fuss. The midfield has been alternately solid and superb. They're still vulnerable in the back line, but Guatemala don't look like they have the weapons to take advantage. Number one keeper Greg Sutton is reportedly still suffering from a concussion, but on current form Stephen Hart should play Onstad anyway.
The USA opened their game with El Salvador in something like a 2-8-0 formation, with three DM's, the fullbacks pushed up in attack, and the sort-of-strikers dropping in and out of the midfield. Unfortunately, when your two best midfielders (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey) play the farthest forward, you're not going to create a lot of chances. And so it proved, as the Yanks creaked their way through the first half hour. But there's always the set piece. In the 34th minute a corner was semi-cleared and DaMarcus Beasley stabbed a right-footed half-volley that somehow threaded its way through four defenders and into the net. In first-half stoppage time Alfredo Pacheco handled in the area, and Donovan stepped up to make it 2:0. Miguel Angel Montes actually saved the PK, but Donovan himself got the rebound and put it past. And...
Well, scratch that. In fact the goal was called back, and for a few moments no one seemed to know why. Turns out Montes had moved off the line early in making the save, so the kick had to be retaken. Retaken? Even after it was scored? Ever seen that before? I didn't think so. I suspect the ref did it so we could see Donovan's pre-PK "I Love My Hands, They Are So Beautiful" bit a second time. After which he scored again.
That finished the game as a contest, although Taylor Twellman and Beasley both got nice second-half counterattack goals to make the final score 4:0. El Salvador just aren't up to playing with the top teams, and are now 0-2-10 against the USA over the last 15 years. It was the Yanks' best overall effort so far, with Beasley and Dempsey co-men of the match. Still, the side looks far from championship quality. There are a lot of inexperienced players (Jonathan Spector, Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley), no bellwether striker (Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, and Twellman are no more than adequate), and doubts as to exactly where Dempsey and Donovan should play. Of course, in 2005 the team looked dreary almost every game and won the title, so don't be surprised if they do it again. But don't be surprised if they lose to Panama either.
The final game of a largely forgettable group was Guatemala-T&T, with the Soca Warriors amazingly still eligible for the quarterfinals. All they had to do was win by two goals, and maybe if they'd had Stern John, Aurtis Whitley, Dennis Lawrence, Chris Birchall, Carlos Edwards, etc. etc. they could have done it. But with the subs it was too much to ask, especially after defender Dwayne Jack was red-carded in only the 29th minute for throwing an elbow at José Contreras. (By the way, Leonel Noriega threw a similar elbow for Guatemala a few minutes later and didn't even get carded.)
But lo and behold, the Warriors played like Warriors, holding Guatemala dead even the rest of the way. In a lively final half-hour both sides missed chances, Carlos Ruiz finally got on the scoreboard in the 84th, and two minutes later sub Errol McFarlane got the equalizer (and just missed the winner in injury time). It was a nice reward for T&T and rather a humiliating result for the chapines. Even against the weakest side in the tournament they played only one striker, so I wouldn't expect two against Canada. I also wouldn't expect them to win.
The little Microsoft word-counter says that I've written over 400,000 words for Planet World Cup (and its predecessor World Cup Archive) in the past six years. Which is fine, but I could write 400,000 more and not do justice to Honduras-Mexico, played before nearly seventy thousand at Giants Stadium last Sunday. It was one of those games you had to see to appreciate, and in some cases, just to believe.
At the center of it all, as so many times in his long career, was Cuauhtémoc Blanco. The greatest and most psychotic Mexican player of his generation, Blanco was famously left off the 2006 World Cup team by his arch-enemy, Ricardo LaVolpe, and just as famously restored by Hugo Sánchez. They had missed him in Germany. At 34 he may not have the quickness and stamina, but he still has the skill and imagination. And he was using most of it against Honduras, a team that had come primed for the upset. It was an absorbing game. The underdogs dominated the first 20 minutes, missed several good chances (including an Amado Guevara penalty kick--fortunately, since the foul call was dubious), and then found themselves on the defensive. Blanco, as always, was running the Mexico attack, dropping deep to get the ball, drifting over to the right to create, moving into advanced positions to send in through balls, etc. etc. He looked great. And when in the 28th minute left back Emilio Izaguirre quite clearly tripped Alberto Medina in the area, it was Blanco who stepped up and powered the penalty kick straight, hard, and into the back of the net.
Flash ahead, skipping over 20 more minutes of fine football, and we're early in the second half. Mexico are about to take a corner kick, and Blanco is jostling with Samuel Caballero. Caballero is another interesting story, maybe the finest defender in Honduras history, a guy who missed several years with a serious knee injury. And, like a man who knows his business, he was goading Blanco. How? Well, if you can believe it, he was, well...how shall I put this...sort of...kissing him. Not on the lips, of course (that wouldn't be manly, especially for a man named Caballero) but on the ear. Or maybe the back of the neck. In fact, he had been doing it on and off the entire game. The replay wasn't clear on whether he ever actually made contact, but it must have been close enough to let Blanco know what was going on. And Blanco jammed an elbow in Caballero's stomach, hard. Boom-down: Caballero fell like a sack of coffee beans. The ref didn't see it, but the assistant ref did. And out came the red card. The expression on Blanco's face was priceless: he knew he'd been had, knew he'd been gamed. For one of the rare times in his life you had to feel sorry for him. Afterwards he claimed Caballero had spit in his face, but I suspect he couldn't bring himself to say what had really happened. And from now on we'll call Caballero "The Latin Lover."
The rest of the game figured to be an anticlimax, but it wasn't. It was climax on climax, the second of two marvelous halves of football. And another figure moved to the fore, striker Carlo (sometimes called Carlos) Costly. He's big and mobile. He plays for GKS Belchatow in Poland. He doesn't play regularly--two goals all season, according to www.Soccerbot.com. In the first half he'd been one of the chief culprits, heading weakly from 6 yards and firing high from 15. But now in the 60th minute Guevara sent him through on the left of the penalty area, Oswaldo Sánchez came out to smother, and Costly went nimbly by him and drove it in decisively from a very narrow angle. Pandemonium.
A half-hour later it was still 1:1, and Mexico had seemingly survived. For all their magnificent effort, Honduras were tired, and 10 on 11 was an even match. But in the 91st minute Izaguirre moved up into attack, passed to sub Jairo Martínez out on the left wing, and headed for the area. Martínez sent him the return pass; Izaguirre made it to the byline and lifted a delicate cross into the middle. And it was Costly again, high over Carlos Salcido, to head past a helpless Sánchez. Double pandemonium. It was Gold Cup history--the first time Mexico had ever been beaten by a CONCACAF team in the group stage. I apologize for not giving more details about the game, but like I said, words don't do it justice. If you didn't see it, go on eBay and pay whatever they're asking. And watch it over and over when you need to be reminded how much fun futbol can be.
And don't forget Panama-Cuba, either. The second game of the night was a minor classic, with more than its share of chills and spills. Panama decided to go for broke from the start, switching their 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 and sending pretty much everyone forward. It was wide open football, with lots of space and lots of chances. Panama had significantly more possession, but their back line was so poor (Carlos Rivera especially) that a total breakdown was only moments away. In the 6th minute Blas Pérez was through but shot right at the keeper; at the other end a few minutes later Pedro Faife grazed the post. Finally Panama broke through. Amilcar Henríquez got it to Pérez near the top of the area; he flipped it up with his foot, and deftly headed to a charging José Luís Garcés on the right, who powered home.
The TV announcers were already talking a Panama rout, and discussing the effect of goal difference on the standings. But this isn't the Cuba of the past. More like the Cuba of the distant past, say 1938, when they upset Romania at the World Cup. Somewhere below the radar they've developed a skilled and clever team, capable on their day of playing with anyone in the region. They're a bit weak in the back line, and a bit short up front--literally: their main striker, Reynier Alcántara, looks about 5 foot 6. But they stay organized and they don't quit. They got the equalizer in the 29th minute when Jaime Colomé's free kick fooled Jaime Penedo and snuck in at the near post.
But this is also a different Panama. They stuck Ricardo Philips on at halftime, and less than a minute later his deflected pass found its way to Pérez for a clinical finish and the second goal. Pérez is an intriguing player: tall and thin, smooth and unobtrusive. His finishing has been distressingly inconsistent so far, but he's great in the air and an intelligent passer. He's the kind of guy who can hide for a while and then destroy you.
Cuba weren't destroyed, and didn't look beaten--but also didn't look like they were going to equalize. Striker Leo Duarte had been very good against Mexico but was invisible here; Alcántara was plenty visible but couldn't convert several half-chances. Panama's back line was still leaking oil, but no one was taking advantage. That is, until the 76th minute, where Colomé and Osvaldo Alonso performed a nifty one-two and Colomé lofted it for Alcántara on the left side of the area. Another half-chance, but this time Alcántara made it whole, with a stunning left-foot volley high over Penedo.
Which left us at 2:2, and the teams seemingly too tired to move the scoreline. But never take your eye off Panama's Felipe Baloy. He's a central defender, but he's been known to show up almost anywhere on the field. With only a couple of minutes left he came up to the center line on the right, fed Luís Moreno, and kept on running. The ball went swiftly from Moreno to Philips to Engin Mitre and back to Baloy, who at this point was running all alone straight for the right side of the penalty area. Keeper Odelin Molina dashed out and took him down; the ref signaled the PK, and the replay showed he was absolutely right. So it was Panama's game--except, like we said, don't take your eye off Baloy. He stepped up to take the penalty, and sent it, oh, say six miles over the bar. Tiger Woods would have loved it. Last seen the ball was crossing the 49th parallel.
The draw meant that Cuba were still alive in the tournament, and could advance to the quarterfinals with a win over Honduras. Unfortunately, somewhere on the flight from New Jersey to Houston, they froze. It didn't help that Alonso, their top midfielder, defected the day before the game. (Lester Moré, their former star striker, had also defected a few days before, but about seven years too late.) Once out on the field the defense panicked, and Honduras, in the person of Carlos Pavón, wiped them out. In only the 3rd minute Pavón scored unmarked on a cross from Costly, followed it up in the 12th on a combination defense/keeper blunder, added a third in the 42nd on a header off a corner, and finished off the foursome with a neat flick after a pass from old favorite "Rambo" Leon. Amado Guevara notched a late penalty to complete the handful.
It was a disappointing exit for Cuba, but don't be fooled: the 0:5 was the fluke, not the other two results. This is a real team, with good wing threats in Pedro Faife and Alain Cervantes, and a reliable midfielder in Colomé. Alonso is a major loss, but if they can keep the rest of the squad intact, they should do some damage come WCQ time.
As for Honduras, they look fabulous. Pavón and Costly have remedied the striker deficiency, and Rambo, fresh from helping Genoa get promotion, should add even more punch to a dangerous midfield. The big question mark is stamina: having lost the opener against Panama, Reinaldo Rueda couldn't rest the stars for the games against Mexico and Cuba. With the exception of Rambo, who just showed up for the last game, and Wilson Palacios, who was red-carded in the first, the side should be exhausted. Finishing first, though, means they won't have to travel. Guadeloupe should fall in the quarters, which should bring up Mexico again in the semis, courtesy of the "keep the Yanks and the Tri apart at all costs" bracketing. Honduras against Mexico again? Sign me up.
We've already given the Mexico-Panama result. It was a very bad performance from the Tri, and Oswaldo Sánchez should get gold watches from the entire squad. Maybe they were tired after the epic against Honduras, although Honduras certainly didn't look tired in slamming Cuba. But the truth about this Mexico side is that without Blanco (and he's suspended for the quarterfinal as well), they have no creativity in the middle of the park. This was a problem for LaVolpe's squad as well, although Sinha, the naturalized Brazilian, at times did the job. Hugo doesn't play naturalized citizens on principle, which is OK until you find out you have no playmaker. For the most part the side has had to rely on the wing pace of Andrés Guardado and Alberto Medina. Nery Castillo, born in Mexico to Uruguayan parents (and thus safely within Hugo's player pool), has looked dangerous at times up front, but when presented with a perfect feed from Jared Borgetti he hit the post. Costa Rica have looked indifferent so far, so the Tri should have enough to win what should be an ugly game. Which means Blanco will be back just in time to renew his tryst with Samuel Caballero.
That leaves Panama, who along with Honduras and Canada have been the most fun side to watch. The defense was much better against Mexico, and the attack almost overran the Tri early and late. Felipe Baloy missed a gimme and Blas Pérez missed one only a little tougher; with accurate finishing they'd have won the group. The USA is definitely beatable, but the side will be without Roman Torres, one of their best defenders, red-carded at the end against Mexico. It's likely to be a wild one, R-rated at least, but whoever survives will probably face Canada, in what I'm predicting will be an outstanding match. If it's Guatemala, it'll also be outstanding, only from the dark side.
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