With the March international break in the books and only 1 more significant set of friendlies to go before the World Cup kicks off, let’s take a look at how our World Cup opponents are doing in their preparations for the World Cup! We’ll go through them in the order we’ll face them, so Sweden are up first.
Our first opponents, Sweden, also suffered two defeats in the international break. First up, Sweden took on Chile, one of the strongest South American teams to miss out on the World Cup. Chile took a very strong side with stalwarts Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas, Charles Aranguiz, and Jean Beausejour to Stockholm and came away with a 2-1 victory. Chile are ranked No. 10 in the world in the latest FIFA rankings so it’s not a bad result for Sweden, which comes in at No. 19. On the first goal, Sweden fail to deal with a corner and Vidal belts in a golazo volley for the goal. There is absolutely no GK in the world who could’ve saved that shot. However, one minute later Emil Forsberg, Sweden’s creator in chief, drives towards the box and plays some slick passes that eventually free Ola Toivonen for a side-foot finish from the top of the box. We’ll have to really pay attention to Forsberg because if he gets space to pick out passes, he can make things happen. Sweden stayed in the match until the dying minutes when Nicolas Castillo played a delicate chip over the defense to find Alexis Sanchez wide open. Sanchez’s shot was blocked but Marco Bolados was there for an easy rebound goal. All in all, it’s a bit similar to how we lost to Northern Ireland. Sweden hung around and had the match level only to get caught out in the last few minutes. The game-winning goal itself had the look of Korea’s goal against Northern Ireland though. A chipped pass over the defense leaves Sanchez all alone to get a shot on goal, just as Park Jooho lobbed the pass over the backline for Kwon to slot home. If we can look for those types of lobbed balls, we might be able to find some joy against Sweden. Yesterday, Sweden traveled to Romania and suffered a 1-0 loss. Romania finished 4th in their World Cup qualifying group and are currently ranked 36th in the world. Suffice it to say, not a good look for Sweden to be losing to a team like this. Romania’s goal was a classic case of a defense that is stretched too far towards one side of the field, allowing an attacker space on the other side to attack. Romania switched the play near the top of the box with a lobbed ball, the attacker finds himself 1 v 1 with a scrambling defender, stays patient and curls the ball far post. Emil Forsberg did not play in this match with Sweden rotating and most of their chances came from long balls to the strikers. While that is one of our weak points, the conclusion that you can draw from this match is that without Forsberg Sweden lack the creativity to create great chances. Most of their shots against Romania came from outside the box whereas Forsberg created a great opportunity at the top of the box against Chile. Focus on Forsberg, silence him and we can find a way to win.
Mexico were a little bit stronger this international break and easily swept aside Iceland 3-0 on Friday night. Their first goal came off of a free kick at the top of the box after a high boot foul on Andres Guardado. Watching the replay it looks like one of those times when the player plays up the contact and the ref is forced to make the call even though it really didn’t look like much. Marco Fabian puts away the free kick but we have to remember that CONCACAF opponents are very sneaky so we have to limit our mistakes against them. In the second half, Mexico subbed on most of their star players and got 2 goals from Miguel Layun. The first was a great slide rule through ball to him from Hirving “Chucky” Lozano that gave him the chance to one-time the finish far post. His second goal game in the 90th minute to make things 3-0 and it was a golazo. He’s at least 30 yards out from the goal and he curls a shot left-footed over the GK. It was ridiculous. From that match, Chucky Lozano played really well and should be a danger man in Russia against us. He’s quick and not afraid to shoot and can play some nice passes as well. Chicarito and Carlos Vela will also feature in Russia so the attacking talent is there for Mexico. Last night, however, Mexico slumped to a 1-0 defeat to Croatia after struggling with the physical play of the Croatians. There were a lot of fouls on Mexican players, one Mexican player went down with an injury and it just looked like Mexico couldn’t create at all. Croatia’s goal came off a penalty on one of the stupidest decisions I have ever seen by a defender. The Croatian attacker is on the edge of the box near the touch line and struggling to even keep the ball in play. It looks like there is nothing there for him and then the Mexican defender takes a huge swing to clear the ball and kicks him in the leg. Clear penalty and you have to wonder what that guy was thinking. Hopefully we see one of those defensive blunders in Rostov-on-Don!
The final opponent and the defending World Cup champions also had a bit of a mixed bag this break. They played really strong opponents to ready themselves for a run at defending the title. On Friday, they drew with Spain 1-1 while playing with a very strong lineup featuring Werner, Draxler, Ozil, and Muller in attack. This was not far from a lineup that Low could go with in Russia. 5 minutes into the match, Iniesta found himself with some space and played a brilliant through ball for Rodrigo to dink one over an onrushing ter Stegen. Both teams looked pretty bright afterwards, with Werner especially causing the Spanish backline some problems. In the 34th minute, the ball comes to Muller outside the box and nobody closed him down so he curled in a strike from distance. It was a lot like the Zielinski game winner, when an attacker has space outside the box, close him down and deny him the chance to take a shot. Both teams pressed hard for a winner but neither could find that final pass or classy finish to get the winning goal. Against a strong opponent, Germany looked dynamic and created plenty of chances and probably were disappointed not to win. De Gea made a few great saves and they rattled the bar once but no winning goal. Yesterday, Germany took on another tough opponent in Brazil and lost 1-0 in Berlin. What I want to talk about with this match is the German goalkeeping situation. Manuel Neuer, one of the world’s best GKs, was not fit to play either match and yesterday Kevin Trapp got the nod and he looked horrible. On the goal he failed to stop a header straight at him and also flapped at a few corners to give Brazil opportunities. If Neuer can’t get fit in time for the World Cup, we will have to face one of Marc-Andre ter Stegen or Kevin Trapp, neither of whom approach the level of Neuer. Another positive from yesterday is that Germany played a lineup more resembling their B team and didn’t look as sharp as against Spain. This is also something for Low to consider. Will he want to rest his starters to prepare for the knockout round against us and will we be able to take advantage? Overall, Jogi Low probably learned a lot from this round of friendlies and will continue to fine-tune his squad for the World Cup. He knows he has a wealth of attacking talent and needs to find the right mix of talent and also he has a lot of versatility at the back so he needs to find a good defense to protect one of his backup GKs.
How would I summarize this international break for us in Group F? A lot of positives to take towards the World Cup and opportunities to see how we can find enough points to advance out of the group. None of these teams are unbeatable and each has flaws that we can expose. Yes, we didn’t win our matches but neither did our opponents. We showcased some attacking talent and we need to reconfigure our defense for the World Cup. Group F will truly be the Group of Death because all these teams really could stake a claim to getting to the knockout stages if they play well. However, there is room for any of the 4 to crash out as well. It should be interesting and we’ll be up for the fight! Daehanminguk Hwaiting!