Inter-Barca clash a taste of things to come?
last week's epic struggle between
I'm not concerned about the group phase. In this first stage of the competition a draw is often a disappointing result. Teams are chasing three points to ensure their presence in the knockout rounds.
But it is here that I start to worry. However good the group phase may be, a World Cup is always remembered for what happens in the knockout matches, the business end of the tournament.
And here's the problem: while in the group matches the onus is on teams to win, once qualified for the knockout rounds, for the weaker sides at least, the important thing is not to lose. They hang on in there, wind down the clock and at the end of the 120 minutes enter the lottery of the penalty shootout.
Football is a low-scoring game which is not always won by the best side - both the sport's big blessing, and its major curse. The former, because it is constantly surprising. The latter because, at least in a cup format, a no risk policy can be rewarded - as Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan showed last Wednesday.
the preponderance of South Americans in their line up, this is not the place
for an in-depth analysis of Inter Milan - those who cover European football can
do that far better than I can. And accusations that Mourinho is ultra-defensive
have to explain how his team scored three goals, and could have scored several
more, in the first leg against
But a general tactical point is appropriate. A few years ago it was common to hear coaches say that the decisive moment in football was the set piece - the free kick or corner. This was where the game was won or lost. Mourinho disagrees - and to my mind his prolonged success is in no small part due to this disagreement.
Transition key for Special One
For Mourinho the key moment is the transition - the moment when the ball changes hands from one team to the other. Win possession and organise a quick counter-attack, and your side has a great chance of shooting at goal, or winning a set-piece in a dangerous area of the field.
Lose the ball without the necessary protection and your side is open to the opposing counter-attack, and may only prevent a shooting chance by conceding a set-piece in a dangerous area. The great secret of Mourinho's success - drilled relentlessly - is that his teams are almost never caught on the counter-attack.
two ties between
But what if neither team is prepared to take the risk, if both are primarily concerned with protecting themselves at the moments of transition? In this situation stalemate is a likely outcome.
I fear, is the spectre that could haunt the knock out stages in
the evidence of last year's Confederations Cup, it appears that FIFA are alive
to this problem. Very strict refereeing standards seemed to be their response.
The idea, then, would seem to be to use a hard line refereeing approach to tip the balance in favour of attack.
problems: first, as Mourinho's Inter showed last week, holding out with ten men
is by no means impossible, even against a team like
Second, this refereeing criteria offers an extra incentive for the attacking player to dive. In addition to winning a free kick, simulating a foul could also result in the other side going a man down. So why not try it on, especially as it is so difficult for the referee to define whether or not contact has taken place, or whether the contact was in fact provoked by the diving attacker?
Given the tight nature of many big games and the tendency for stalemate in the knock out stages, we could be in for some controversial moments of diving in this year's World Cup.
About the Author
The son of a reasonably skilled amateur soccer player, Tim Vickery inherited the enthusiasm but none of the talent - and soon came to the conclusion that his best position was on the sidelines writing about the game. Tim did not make it out of his native England until the age of 23, but has since made up for lost time. He has been based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for over 15 years, and writes and broadcasts about South American soccer for, among others, the BBC, World Soccer magazine, and SI.com.