Friday, June 13, 2008

Fear the Oranje!!!

What a gripping display of soccer put forth today in both games. Hats off especially to The Netherlands for playing the type of soccer that turns simple games into magnificent spectacles of sport. Here on my thoughts on one of the best days of soccer I have seen in my life.

- The Dutch counter-attack is the most lethal i've ever seen. Two of their goals against Italy and three more today came courtesy of it. The attacking players on the team play so well together and with such an innate understanding of each other that each time The Oranje clear the ball on defense, I am expecting to see something spectacular.

- Ruud Van Nistelrooy played one of the best games i've ever seen a striker play today. Not only was he a constant threat to score, but he was also an excellent link for providing chances for the other attacking players on the team. His move to keep the ball in play and then set up Robben for his run on the second goal was one of the greatest moves I've ever seen. I also couldn't help but compare him to Henry in this game, in that they are both aging strikers who are still counted on greatly by their national teams. While one (Henry) was missing most of his chances and rarely linking up with teammates, RVN was constantly involved in the Dutch attack not only finishing chances but creating them as well. Ruud's stock is definitely rising, Henry's not so much.

- The Dutch defense is still catching a lot of flak, but i think a bigger concern in the Dutch midfield. Orlando Engelaar looked awful out there, and the 20 minute or so stretch of French pressure occurred when they dominated the midfield, not after Van Basten inserted Robben and Van Persie. Van Bronckhorst and Bouhlarouz were both excellent today, and should be able to hold their own. If the Dutch middlemen can control their mistakes, then Edwin Van Der Sar can do the rest. And honestly, with the way The Oranje is attacking right now, who really cares how their defense is playing?

- France looks like a team stuck between two generations. The old guys are too old and because Domenech doesn't trust his younger players, they don't have the confidence to make a difference when they come in. Domenech's decision making was ridiculous today. If you know you need to score goals, then why play with 2 defenders? And if you bring in Henry as the top striker, why not put in midfielder that can actually provide him some decent service. Then he decided to substitute the overwhelmed Gomis and the perenially dissapointing Anelka. If i was France, I'd start over with a new coach who supports the new generation of players. Its not 2000 any more, and these young kids have the talent to deserve a chance to make a difference.

- The officiating in the Italy-Romania game was absolutely terrible. I know Italy has gotten a lot of calls over the years and maybe things are balancing out, but to miss a simple off-sides call and then reward a dubious penalty in the 80th minute is completely unfair. Maybe it was karma helping Buffon make such an amazing save, but just to be safe lets hope that Steve from the Jerry Springer show doesn't call another game in this tournament.

- Its amazing how ordinary Italy can look with a solid back line. Cannavaro and Materazzi provide so much cover for the midfield and wingbacks that without them Italy gives us lots of chances even to teams with ordinary attackers like Romania.

- Romania may catch a break with The Netherlands resting their top players, but they have definitely earned it. Not only do they appear to be one of the best coached teams in the tournament, but they have shown that they can play solid defense while creating excellent scoring chances as well. If they meet Spain in the quarterfinals, they are going to give them one hell of a game.

And with that said i'm off to the bars. Hopefully the games tomorrow are just as good, because these past two days have given viewers some incredible theater. I'm also saying a special prayer for Netherlands to meet Spain at some point in this tournament because that game would have the potential to be an all-time classic. Until then, Young Sweezy is off to drink beer and remember an incredible day of soccer.

Group C Preview

The first games played in Group C on Monday showed both extremes in soccer. We saw a Netherlands team at the height of their game, playing beautiful football and dismantling Italia. Unfortunately we also saw France play maybe the worst game of the tourney so far, lacking any sort of direction or innovation on their way to a boring 0-0 draw with Romania. So as today's 2nd set of games begin in the group of death, will we see more of the same, or will the four teams balance out and provide us with the excitement we all want to see? Lets take a look.

Italy -vs- Romania

The Italians are coming off their worst loss in a major competition in my lifetime and now have to face a difficult Romanian squad today. Italy looked slow and old as the Dutch repeatedly ran past them on counter-attacks. What is even more shocking is how their vaunted midfield was torn apart by the lesser-known players for the Dutch. While Pirlo did have a good game, the three other midfielders were awful and allowed the Dutch the space to play their brand of soccer. One of the reasons for this midfield failure was the asisine decision making of coach Roberto Donadoni to play Ambrosini instead of Daniele De Rossi. Not only is De Rossi a much better player at this stage of his career, he would have been able to assert himself much better in an open game and help stave off the Netherlands attacking chances. As opposed to Italy's embarrasing defensive effort, the Romanians looked greatly composed and aware against France. And while the French looked highly confused most of the game offensively, some credit has to go to Romania for not giving them the opportunities to find that offense. Their organization on defense was excellent and Mutu and Nicolae up front still provide some chances. Romania may have been overlooked in the group before Monday, but its obvious now that they have the talent to advance.

Tactics Board: Italy needs to make two big changes in this game. The first is to insert Fabio Grosso at left back for the entire game. When him and Zambrotta are flying down the wings, Italy becomes a much different and more dangerous team (as evidenced by WC 2006). Second of all, they need to let De Rossi control things in the midfield. Without a Totti to link Pirlo with the forwards, the front line didn't recieve enough support. De Rossi would be perfect for this and will help open up a stout Romanian defensive line. For Romania, they will probably play very similar to how they did against France. The problem is that Italy is going to be much more agressive than the French out of necessity. For this reason Romania is going to have to try and control possession more and create more offense. If they try and play defense all game and rarely go forward, they are playing with fire because Italy will score today.

Prediction: This game may be the last stand for the old guard of Italian soccer. Thankfully for them, they still have a great chance to advance in the group. They must get a result today, and its not going to be easy against Romania. However, their defense will play much better today and if Donadoni makes the right decisions, Italy will win this game. An early goal from Luca Toni will hold up, and then a late goal by Acquilani gives the Italians a 2-0 win.

Netherlands -vs- France
Its hard not to be a fan of the Dutch when they play soccer the way they did on Monday. When the Dutch are right, only Brazil and Argentina can match the aesthetic quality of their play. On the other hand, I've never seen France look worse. Their was no sense of urgency in their play, and seemingly no understanding between any of their players. Maybe i'm just set in my ways, but its impossible for me to imagine them playing as badly as they did on Monday. Also, I find it very hard for the Dutch to play that well again. They have been a very schizophrenic national team throughout history, looking great one day and clueless the next. And for all that offensive firepower, they did give up quite a few chances to Italy that could go in on another day. If France can get Thierry Henry back in the lineup, and figure out how to properly use Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery it could be a very long day for the Dutch defense. With that being said, the coach of the French has the acumen of a walnut, so odds are that he probably still screws the whole thing up.

Tactics Board: The Dutch face a pretty interesting quandary. They played so well against Italy without two of their best players starting in Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben. Now they are healthy and available, but does Van Basten want to mess with the chemistry his squad showed on Monday. If I was the manager I would have no hesitations to re-insert those two. The Dutch will need their quality if they want to advance far in this tournament, and if those two are alongside Van Nistelrooy and Sneijder they could be an offensive juggernaut. For France, questions abound. Will Henry and Vieira be healthy enough to play? If they are, say goodbye to Anelka and Toulalan, who were awful last game. Domenech has to be thinking that he has to find more offense, which should mean that a more offensive midfield option such as Nasri could be inserted in the lineup at the expense of the overrated Malouda. Finally, I'd love to see Patrice Evra get a start at left back for Abidal. Evra was quietly one of the best players on Man United and would give France an attacking option they have never had from their back line. Domenech probably won't do that because he's an idiot, but at least I can dream.

Prediction: I'm going to expect another open game for the Dutch. Their defense is going to allow a lot of chances to France because they simply aren't that good, yet their offensive stars could run circles around the slower French defenders. The matchup to watch is Sneijder versus Makelele. If Sneijder can run the midfield for Holland and create chances for the front line, the Dutch are in great shape. If Makelele can thug it up and shut down the Dutch midfielder, France will have a huge advantage in this game. I have a feeling this is going to be the game of the tournament, with both teams slugging it out to a 2-2 tie. I'll say goals from RVN and Sneijder balance out efforts from Young Benzema and Ribery for France.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

MLB Power Poll

Round 2 of this year's interleague play battles are coming up this weekend. Last round it was just one series, but this time there will be 3 series in a row. The first batch is a little weak with the best probably being a matchup of the Braves and Angels, but the second round looks very intriguing with the Red Sox/Phillies, Cubs/Rays, and Mets/Angels all matching up. While interleague play can be overkill sometimes, it's fun at the beginning and should freshen up the schedule during the lazy days of mid-summer. Let's check out the latest rankings.

1.) Chicago Cubs (43-24)- The Cubs looked to be unstoppable, until an untimely injury halted the team in their tracks yesterday. Alfonso Soriano was hit by a pitch in last night's game and could miss 6 weeks with a broken bone in his hand. The bad news for the Cubs is that the Phons will be tough to replace. He has 15 Homers this year to lead the team and is one of the more intimidating hitters in the game at the lead off spot and he provides great protection for the rest of the lineup. However, the North Siders went 9-5 during Soriano's 2 week absence earlier this year and are so well rounded that they should be able to manage without him. They're currently on a 4 game win streak after a sweep of the slumping Braves.

2.) Boston Red Sox (42-27)- No Papi? No problem! Manny Ramirez and friends have been picking up the slack while David Ortiz chills on the DL. They've lost just twice in their last 9 games and have scored 34 runs in their last 5. JD Drew has a hit in every game this month and has homered in 3 of the last 4 games. Did I mention that he leads the team in BA among everyday players at .324. Meanwhile, props go out to rookie Justin Masterson. He's 3-0 with an ERA just over 2.5 and has filled in nicely for the injured Dice-K. The Red Sox also rank in the top 2 in every hitting category in the AL and are average or better in every pitching category.

3.) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (41-26)- The Angels have only lost twice this month. That helps explain why they have a 5 game lead in the AL West. Go figure, that's not even the biggest division lead right now (more on that later). With the line-up still trying to get it together, the team has used their pitching as a crutch. Luckily for the Angels, it's the strongest crutch in baseball. Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders rank in the top 5 in the AL in Wins. Swervin' Ervin also ranks 4th in the league in era at just a hair over 3. Let's not forget about the best closer in baseball, Francisco Rodriguez. K Rod has 6 more saves than the next highest finisher with 27 on the season.

4.) Philadelphia Phillies (40-28)- This is the only team to change spots in this week's rankings. The Phillies are playing as well as anyone in baseball right now, but don't have as gaudy of a record as the top 3...yet. They've lost just 4 times in the past 3 weeks, but two of those came in their most recent series with division rival Florida. The Phils still lead the Marlins by 3 in the NL East, however. Although this is a team chock full of talent, they have two distinct leaders on both sides of the ball. Chase Utley continues to own NL pitching and leads the team in every major hitting category. Meanwhile, Cole Hamels leads the NL in IP and CG and is top 3 in K's and WHIP. Not too shabby for a 24 year old.

5.) Tampa Bay Rays (38-28)- Tampa drops a spot, but they're still very much alive in the playoff picture. In fact they lead the AL wild card slot by 2.5 games over Oakland and by 5 over a trio of other scrubs. Still, the hot streak that they were once on seems like so long ago now that they're just 4-6 in their last 10 games. Unfortunately for the Rays, they've run into a very tough portion of their schedule. Their last 5 series were against the Rangers twice (better than you might think at 34-34 on the season), as well as the White Sox, Red Sox, and Angels who all inhabit this week's poll. It doesn't get any easier for the Rays as they have to face the Marlins, Cubs, and Astros during the upcoming week of interleague play. It doesn't lighten up until the end of the month when they get a breather against Pittsburgh. If they can just stay afloat and cruise with a .500 record, they should be able to keep pace in the wild card race.

6.) St. Louis Cardinals (40-28)- The Cardinals have continued to win, but it won't be easy to keep up the pace as they suffered a huge blow with the loss of their leader Albert Pujols. Phat Albert will miss at least 3 weeks with a strained calf and which should put a damper on the Red Birds run support. Luckily, Ryan Ludwick continues to rake and has been the surprise of the NL this season. He's already set a career high for HR and leads the team with 16 (he's also the team leader in runs and rbi's as well). He's got bombs in 3 of his last 4. The Cards still didn't drop at all despite a loss today, because they had won 4 straight going into this morning. They get a break from the interleague play battles to match up with Philly in what should be the series of the weekend.

7.) Chicago White Sox (37-29)- Remember how I said that the Angels 5 game lead wasn't the biggest division advantage in baseball? That's because the Chi Sox are up by 5.5 over Minnesota in the AL Central. They have that huge gap despite getting swept by the Tigers this week. Luckily for Chicago, they've get to prep for their gigantic matchup with the Cubs by playing creampuffs Pittsburgh and Colorado. Before the latest series with Detroit they had been cooking with 61 runs scored during a 7 game win streak. Jermaine Dye looks to be getting his swing back with 11 hits during that streak. Javier Vazquez also currently leads the league in K's to pace a roster that tops the AL in ERA.

8.) Milwaukee Brewers (35-31)- They've had a mediocre week, but are still 7-3 in their last 10 games. Their offense has been especially impressive the last two games where they've scored 19 runs. Ryan Braun is usually the guy getting the praise, but Corey Hart definitely deserves some accolades as well. He's got 3 HR in his last 2 games and 12 hits in the last 7. He's clearly one of the better stat stuffers in baseball right now with the ability to hit for power and average as well as creating noise on the basepaths. The true leader of this club though has to be Ben Sheets. He's beaten the injury bug so far en route to a sparkling 7-1 record. He also currently ranks third in the NL in ERA at 2.62. If the Brewres are going to have any shot at a playoff spot, they absolutely need Sheets to stay healthy.

9.) Arizona Diamondbacks (36-31)- The D-backs continue to hang on at the end of this poll by the hair of their chinny chin chins. They haven't exactly inspired lately either. Before coming from behind to beat the Mets 5-4 (they trailed 4-0 mid-way) they had lost 6 of 9. This team really misses the 2007 Eric Byrnes. The 25-25 man that single-handedly won them multiple games and was the emotional leader of this young club. Without Boo-yrnes, they have really struggled to score runs. Don't blame Mark Reynolds for that though. After starting the year on a tear and cooling off, he's back like cooked crack averaging a Homerun a game over the last 4. He's also got 7 ribbies over that span. Still, he can't carry this team alone and will need a little help from his friends (I'm looking in your direction Justin Upton) if this team is going to break out of their funk. It's amazing that they somehow still lead the AL Worst by 4.5 games.

10.) Oakland A's (35-30)- The Athletics have held their own against a brutal schedule. They've won 6 of their last 10 games against the Rangers, Tigers, Angels, and Yankees (all top half of the league offensively). Luckily the sked lightens up considerably over the course of the month. They've got 6 games against miserable San Francisco (the Walrus) and also take on the slumping D-backs and pitching-challenged Marlins. The fact that this team is still in the playoff hunt is a wonder, but you've gotta give them their due for winning close games and stringing together clutch hits.

Also Receiving Votes: Florida Marlins (only other team above .500 in baseball), New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays

A Sad Summer in the Hoosier State

The picture above was taken on Kirkwood Avenue, the main street in Bloomington, Indiana. Last week, extreme flooding overtook the midwest and made life unbearable in numerous cities including the one where Indiana University is located in. The damage caused by this could have some irreparable effects on the campus.

A similar situation occured to the Hoosier basketball team this year. After the disgraceful scandel involved with the Kelvin Sampson regime caused IU to fall from Top 10 to first round exiters, things went from bad to worse this offseason. On top of the players that graduated/entered the draft, 7 other players have left the program/were kicked off the team. This includes the newest member of the drop-out club, Jordan Crawford. His family announced yesterday that he would not return to play for IU next year. Crawford would have been the only returning Hoosier with a scoring average over 1.8 pts from last year's squad.

Well, now Indiana has just one scholarship player on the roster now that all 3 top 150 recruits have backed out of their commitments. Coach Tom Crean is going to have a hell of a time turning this program around and I would love to see him do it but I'm not going to hold my breath over the next 3 years.

Oh, I didn't even mention that the NCAA will meet over the next couple of weeks to discuss possible sanctions against IU regarding the Kelvin Sampson violations. Let's just say, it sucks to be a Hoosier right now.

UPDATE: The Hearing starts tommorrow...Friday the 13th.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Joy of the Call-up

I don't even know how to start this, so i'm just going to type as i think. I just found out that one of my best friends from Connecticut, Charlie Morton, is going to get his first career major league start this Saturday for the Atlanta Braves against the Anaheim Angels. Charlie is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball and after dominating Triple-A with a 5-2 record with a 2.09 ERA, he has finally been promoted to the majors. What makes me even happier about this is that even though Charlie is an awesome pitcher, he's an even better person, which makes the call up that much more exciting. I met him my freshman year in high school and we quickly became close friends, joking around in lunch and class (Foss in Geography oh lord) and writing freestyle rap lyrics in study hall or on AIM. Charlie was always so chill, and he was one of the few friends who i had at a time when many of my older friends were leaving me behind. I moved to Michigan after my sophomore year but I've always followed Charlie's pitching career from the time he was signed by the Atlanta Braves through his journey through the minors and finally to this point today. I can't imagine how excited he must feel knowing he is going to the majors, all i know is that it completely made my day and damn near my year just knowing that one of my very good friends has achieved such a monumental accomplishment. You better believe that first start in Atlanta i'm going to be acting a fool while cheering on a great friend on the grandest stage the sport of baseball has to offer.

Monday, June 9, 2008

What A Difference a Year (Or Two) Makes...

Now that, thankfully, a fair amount of dust has settled over the steroids-era of our national pastime, its amazing to think about how altered our collective perspectives have become. A few contrasts demonstrate just how drastically our beliefs about big league sluggers and hurlers have been altered:

Rodger Clemens & Randy Johnson

Just a few months ago, the public would have unanimously agreed that Clemens was the greatest pitcher of his era, and undoubtedly one of the all time three best. His numbers spoke for themselves, or so we thought: seven Cy Young awards, an MVP award, one of only four pitchers with more than 4,000 strikeouts, two pitching triple-crowns. Now, who knows if any of those are legit. At least as far back as a decade ago, he was getting plugged in the ass with Winstrol by Brian McNamee. Not hard to strike dudes out when your on the same 'roids as the horses in the Derby. With recent accusations of an inappropriate relationship with Mindy McCready (when she was as young as 15), Clemens has gone from loved, to suspected, to hated, and now pitied. Oh, and all that "I might come back or I might stay retired" BS, or even just the on-again off-again retirement stuff, just looks even worse now. I guess his ass just didn't handle needles as well in his old age.

Randy Johnson, on the other hand, was able to utilize his freakish frame and God-given talents to put up some of the most impressive numbers this side of Satchel Page, all without a whiff of impropriety tainting his name or numbers. His five Cy Young awards are second only to, you guessed it, steroids-butt Clemens. But, since three of Rodger's came in '98 or later, I will personally always regard The Big Unit as the Cy Young king (until Adam Wainwright eclipses the mark). It was especially gratifying to see him pass Clemens on the all-time strikeouts list. And its good to see Johnson back this year in as good of form as can be expected from a 44-year-old. Who wouldn't mind seeing Johnson win another World Series? And if the D-Backs can roll out Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, and Randy Johnson in a short series, who's to say they can't? (Extra props to Johnson for his appearance in Little Big League, and for not being ashamed to sport a truly beautiful mullet throughout most of his career.)

UPDATE: EXTRA big-ups to Johnson for not being afraid to basically single-handedly incite a bench-clearing brawl today just like its 1989. After the game, he told a reporter that if Doug Mentkewicz had actually bothered him "he (Mentkewicz) would be on a stretcher and I'd be out of the game-classic).

Barry Bonds & Ken Griffey Jr.

This has become the classic good vs. evil debate in recent years. Unquestionably two of the most naturally gifted ball players of all time, one who decided to start using chemical crutches in his later years, and another who surely could have and had opportunities to, but decided to keep playing the right way, even if it did mean missing months upon months of multiple seasons, likely costing him the home run title that was rightly his.

Barry Bonds. Son of an All-Star, godson of Willie Mays. Cousin of Reggie Jackson, notorious transvestite. The pedigree is all there. And when Bonds showed up in the mid-80's, nobody asked if he was good, only how good (or great) he would ultimately be. Even before he pulled an incredible hulk act that would have made Eric Bana/Ed Norton proud, he had Hall of Fame branded on his chest like the "S" on Superman. Unfortunately, jealously of chemically-enhanced freaks Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire promped Young Bonds to hit the juice...and the rest is history. About 250 HR's, three hat sizes, multiple grand jury indictments, and a handful of bizzaro press conferences later, Bonds is a national pariah. But since he is, and has always been, a major league ass-hole, it looks like the ultimate just desserts. (He doesn't even get cred for a Rookie of the Year cameo that surpasses the Unit's guest spot).

Ken Griffey Jr. Wow. The Kid just keeps on swinging. Through at least a half-dozen heart-breaking DL stints and a body hanging together by duct tape, he has truly established himself as the best hitter of his generation. He is a true class act. And by the way, does anyone else look happier to be playing the game he so obviously loves? Griffey Jr. is a guy who has "for the love of the game" written all over his face. How many other players of his caliber would be so gracious about moving over from center field (where he was a member of the all-century team) to right because he just couldn't cover the ground anymore? This season he will surely pass Sammy Sosa's 609 career dingers, and from then, on to Cooperstown. Rock on Jr.

New IU Basketball Facility

Here's What Indiana's New B-ball Facility will look like. Completion is targeted for September 2008. Sucks that we missed out, but it shows how much better IU has it than other schools in the Big 10...and the rest of the country for that matter.

Hall of Shame

I love the drama involved with sports. I'm not just talking about the intensity of a Game 7 in the World Series. No, I'm also a huge fan of the soap opera side. Some of the dumbest human beings on the planet are involved in sports, especially in the United States where the average IQ of a good chunk of the athletes ranges between a sleeping sloth and a box of rocks. I could go on and on about the retards that get injured every year while carrying groceries (Clint Barmes) or playing Guitar Hero (Joel Zumaya), but that's a different post for a different time. I'm going to focus on some football stars that have pretty much thrown away their careers with idiotic decisions lately.

Cedric Benson- Life for Cedric the Entertainer has been rough recently. He was drafted in 2001 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but never made it to the majors and decided that football was a better avenue. After being drafted 4th overall in 2005 by the Chicago Bears, people expected big things out of the swift Longhorn. He's never lived up to the hype, though. After splitting carries with Thomas Jones for 2 years and only received minimal carries. Last year, he became the featured back after Jones was traded to the Jets and you'd assume that being a top draft pick would make him a great breakout candidate. Well, think again. Young Cedric struggled mightily. He rushed for just 687 yards and 4 TD's, well below the league average in yards per carry. Benson was already known as injury prone and in November he sustained a season-ending ankle injury. Now besides under-achieving, you can't really blame him for the other stuff, but this off-season the rebel without a cause was arrested not once, but twice. First for driving a boat while intoxicated and resisting arrest about a month ago. Two days ago, he was arrested again in Austin, Texas for drunk driving after failing a field sobriety test. Bears GM Jerry Colangelo has called the incidents "dissapointing." Well Cedric is about to be enduring some dissapointment of his own because he's in serious jeopardy of being cut. Chicago doesn't really need him because they just drafted Senior Bowl MVP and Tulane RB Matt Forte. Nice going Cedric, you make all of the other incidents involving Bears player look like childs play.

Travis Henry- Mr. T was already an honorary member of the Football Hall of Shame after it was discovered that he's fathered 9 kids with 9 different women. You'd think that slow up his game, but no he keeps on trucking along. Well, he won't be carrying any loads for the Denver Broncos anymore after getting the axe because of what satanic head coach Mike Shanahan called "A lack of commitment on the part of Travis." How pathetic is that. He's the starter of one of the most potent running games in the league (if you can't get 1,000 yards in the Mile High City, then you can't do it anywhere) and he blows it. Speaking of, he tested positive last year for blowing the pipe a little too much. It was a shock he wasn't suspended for the season, but he managed to wiggle his way out of it, thanks to multiple delays on his hearing. This can be attributed to the spin doctors on the Broncos taking the heat away from Henry. How does he thank them? By sitting on his ass and probably smoking more weed this off-season. I don't think I'm the only one who thinks this guy needs to focus on taking care of his 9 children and spend some time (or the rest of his career) away from the league.

Group C Preview

Today begins the games being played in Group C, or as it is better known the "Group of Death", lets take a closer look at the 2 huge games being played today.

France -vs- Romania

As usual the French come in with a team loaded with superstars. They have veteran stars such as Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele and Franck Ribery. They also boast some of the best young players in strikers Karim Benzema and Bafe Gomis and winger Florent Malouda. They certainly have the talent to go far in this tournament, but also questions abound. Will an aging and vulnerable defense be able to hold up for an entire tournament? Will their airhead manager Domenech be able to make the crucial decisions when it is required of him? And how will France respond in their first major tournament after Zidane? We should get a good glimpse at how France will fare in this tournament in today's game against underrated Romania. Even though most of their players are not as the big clubs of Europe, the Romanians always feature a solid team that is competitive to the final whistle. They also hold 2 huge advantages over the favored French. First, their team cohesion is much greater, thanks to 6 of their starters playing for the same club team in Bucharest. This familiarity is so important in a tournament in which many teams starting 11 rarely play with each other during the course of the year. While the names on the back of the jersey may not be as well known, the Romanians will have confidence in each other more than the French will in their teammates. The second advantage for Romania is that they have a dangerous striker who can score at any time. Legendary cokehead Adrian Mutu has had a career restoration at Fiorentina and has once again become one of the most dangerous players in the world. He can impact a game at any moment and could get some excellent chances against a sluggish French back line. French strikers may have the name value in Thierry Henry, but Mutu had a better year than them and has to be considered more reliable than the unproven Benzema and Gomis.

Prediction: France always seems to struggle at the beginning at the tournament, and this is no Austria they are facing today. Its hard to think that a team with France's talent can be stopped for an entire game, but its also hard not to see them making a mistake and letting Romania get a goal. Therefore i see a 1-1 tie in today's game, with goals apiece from Ribery and Mutu.

Italy -vs- Netherlands

The best matchup of the tournament so far features two teams with a legendary soccer history. The Italians are fresh off victory in the last world cup and return another very strong team, even with superstars Cannavaro and Totti out with injury. We always know Italy's defense is going to be rugged, and this year's edition should be no different. We also know that with midfielders like Pirlo, Gattuso and Daniele De Rossi that the Italians can usually control the pace of the game to their desire. Finally, they have adept strikers like Luca Toni and Di Natale and a deep bench which means they are definitely a side that could win this entire tournament. Today they go against a Netherlands team with great injury concerns and an overall feeling that this may be the worst Dutch side in decades. With star players Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie out injured today, and midfield dynamo Wesley Sneijder not at 100%, the Dutch are really going to struggle to create offense against the tough Italian defense. Their defensive backline also has major issues and could be ripe for the taking for the Italy attack. Edwin Van der Sar will have to continue to play like he has at Manchester United for the Dutch to have any chance. Overall, it seems like Holland is at a point where Germany was in 2000-2004. They had a successful generation of players grow old and there isn't enough quality behind them to maintain the lofty standard that has been created for the national team. But it would be smart to beat the Dutch while they are down now, because just like Germany you'd have to be a fool not to the think another generation of Dutch superstars isn't going to come along.

Prediction: Italy is in really good form now and has to be considered the favorite to emerge from the bottom half of the bracket. Combine that with the injury issues that Holland is facing right now, and Italy will win 2-0 with goals from Toni and De Rossi