Three things we learned from Sweden’s 2-0 victory over defending champion Greece in Salzburg:
• If you’re a defender, you’d better not lie prone on the ground while the other team scores--and I love it. For the second day in a row a defender tried to play dead, only for his team to give up a goal while he over-acted. Yesterday, it was Italy’s Christian Panucci, who lay motionless on the field as the Netherlands scored on his team (with Panucci keeping goal-scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy onside). Today it was Greek defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos, who thought he could draw a foul on Petter Hansson by embellishing contact with the Swedish defender in a crazy scrum in front of the goal. Sorry, Sotiris: no whistle blew, so you were at fault on the second Swedish goal as Hansson bundled the ball into the net. For a long time we’ve wondered which solutions might encourage soccer players to stop embellishing contact and get into the game. Well, here’s one of them. Panucci and Kyrgiakos really hurt their teams and paid the price.
• Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets his money’s worth when he scores. The Swedish sniper may not score as much as his countrymen would like--Ibrahimovic hadn’t found the net in 13 international games since October 2005--but he sure gets style points when he does. Four years after his remarkable back-heel goal against Italy in Euro 2004, the enfant terrible of Swedish soccer hit a golazo from long range against the Greeks, playing a nifty give-and-go with Henrik Larsson and unleashing a cracking goal with the outside of his right foot to beat goalie Antonis Nikopolidis. Best goal of the tournament so far? Not quite. For my money, I’ll take (by a hair) the second Dutch goal against Italy, a mindblowing counter-attack capped off by Wesley Sneijder’s technically brilliant right-footed one-timer (off a shoulder-high ball, with his back turned to goal) past Gigi Buffon. But Ibrahimovic’s is a close No. 2.
• The bloom has worn off the Greeks. Boy, is Otto Rehhagel’s team hard to watch, and any neutral had to feel a sense of justice when Sweden was rewarded for playing positive soccer with its two late goals. When it comes to the Greek team I always ask myself: Why is it that the upstart Greeks are so charmless, even though Cinderella is always the favorite of neutral fans in, say, the NCAA basketball tournament? And it just comes down to the way this Greek team plays this sport. It’s as if Greece doesn’t even try to build attacks. Good soccer is fun to watch, but bad soccer is a lot harder to watch than bad basketball, and Rehhagel’s style is a blight on the sport.
Through-balls: There were times during this game, as the Greek defenders passed aimlessly back-and-forth without a single midfielder showing for the ball, that I came around to the idea of having a shot-clock in soccer ... Sweden could really be hurt by the apparent hamstring pull of right-winger Christian Wilhelmsson, one of its most dangerous players on the ball ... Greek defender Sotiris was actually at fault on both Swedish goals, not just the second one. On Ibrahimovic’s goal, Sotiris didn’t provide nearly enough defensive pressure, allowing his mark (Ibrahimovic) to receive the throw-in, turn and (with nobody in his face) play a give-and-go with Larsson while Sotiris ball-watched ... Sweden-Spain should be a fun, free-flowing game, but both teams’ back lines had some awful give-aways deep in their own ends on Tuesday. Olof Mellberg nearly gifted the Greeks a goal just minutes before Sweden went up 1-0 ... The Swedish fans’ sea of yellow and the Dutch fans’ sea of orange is yet another reminder that U.S. fans need to pick a color and go with it in the stadium. Sunday night’s crowd against Argentina had a higher percentage of U.S. fans than expected, which is a good step. The next one is to settle on a color, which I’ve always maintained should be red. (Now if only Nike would cooperate by making red U.S. jerseys.) ... The first “crikey!” of the tournament goes to ESPN’s Robbie Mustoe, describing one of several awful balls-to-nowhere perpetrated by the Greeks. Mustoe’s really good, by the way … Separated at Birth: Greek goalie Nikipolidis and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Can the reigning champs play this defensively in their next game against zero-point Russia and hope to stay in the tournament? I don’t think so--and that’s a good thing.
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