Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Football (Soccer) thoughts-Part One (The World Cup so far)

The World Cup kicked off one week ago, last Thursday at Moscow with the Russian hosts finally giving a good account of themselves under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin in the stands as they took on Saudi Arabia.
The (5-0) scoreline may turn out to be deceiving and be more of a reflection on the Saudis weakness rather than Russian superiority as the hosts have clearly been disappointing in the recent years. Former International Andrei Kanchelskis joined the chorus of naysayers (ahead of the Tournament) by calling this team the worst Russian side in his lifetime.
At least they have a new star in Denis Cheryshev, who came on as a substitute in the 24th minute (for the injured Alan Dzagoev) and grabbed his opportunity by scoring twice.
A few years back, Cheryshev made the news for all the wrong reasons, when as a Real Madrid player in 2015 his participation in a Copa Del Rey match (while he should have been ineligible and suspended) had led Real Madrid to be expelled from the competition.
Another standout for Russia was Aleksandr Golvin, who had a hand in two of the goals and scored the last goal on a free kick. There are rumors of him being courted by Juventus.
The day before this match, in an unprecedented manner (to my memory at least), the Spanish Federation sacked their National Team Manager Julen Lopetegui just two days before their World Cup opener vs. Iberian neighbors Portugal.
Lopetegui had announced his impending Management position at Real Madrid and the Federation were unwilling to forgive him for negotiating without their knowledge.
Fernando Hierro was handed over the heavy burden of preparing the team on short notice.
Spain’s match with Portugal was essentially a ‘La Liga’ match as the Spaniards were faced against Cristiano Ronaldo (a teammate of many of the Spanish players). CR 7 added to his legendary status by having one of those games where he seems to walk on water. He broke many records on this day. He became the first Portuguese player to appear in four World Cups, as well as being the first player to score in eight consecutive Finals of a major Tournament. The match was an entertaining seesaw battle with Ronaldo ‘gaining’ a penalty (and scoring) and then scoring a goal that David De Gea should really have saved. Spain fought back bravely and took the lead and seemed headed for a win before Ronaldo took the center stage again and scored with a free kick late in the game to tie the match in dramatic fashion.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 20, 2018
(Fernando Hierro and Cristiano Ronalso June 15,  2018, Spain 3-Portugal 3)

One wonders how Ronaldo was able to roam free, surely if any one knew how to stop him it should have been his Real Madrid teammates.
In any case, both teams appear capable of qualifying from their group. Hierro appears to have handled the responsibility. For the Spanish, David De Gea, so often beyond reproach with Manchester United, has uncharacteristically looked vulnerable. His mistake in Ronaldo’s second goal, as well as another mistake in Spain’s friendly vs. Switzerland just a few weeks back has weakened his position and fans are actually clamoring his replacement with the Bilbao keeper Kepa. It is unlikely that Hierro will give in to the demands of fickle fans, but De Gea’s perceived lack of confidence is a worry.
The Drama of this match overshadowed Iran’s win over Morocco (1-0) and Uruguay’s win over Egypt (1-0). Both matches were determined with dramatic late goals.
Onto Saturday and Lionel Messi’s Argentina made their debut in the World Cup against World Cup debutants Iceland.
The pressure was already on Messi to perform, as the press cannot stop pitting Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi was also playing in his fourth personal World Cup with Diego Maradona up in the stands watching (and smoking his cigars).
Iceland had been the darling of the 2016 Euros and seem set to win the hearts of the public once more as they held Argentina to a tie (1-1).

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 17, 2018
(Lionel Messi, June 16, 2018, Argentina 1-Iceland 1)

Unlike the Spanish, who had been unable to control Ronaldo, Iceland were intent on cutting out Messi from the supply line and he was constantly surrounded by five or six Icelandic players. To make the matters worse for him, he missed a penalty kick to further the narrative for his critics that feel the National Team Jersey is a size too big for him.
However, the truth is that perhaps he does not have the caliber of teammates of his standing to turn Argentina into potential Champions. Former Brazilian great Roberto Carlos hinted as much when saying that had Messi been Brazilian he already would have won the World Cup.
It is also becoming clear (from his Barcelona matches) that the ageing Messi is unable to make the surging runs of his early days from deeper positions. Perhaps, he should be deployed further upfield like Ronaldo to be fresher and more decisive.
Argentina Manager Jorge Sampaoli came under heavy criticism for his tactics most notably from Diego Maradona.
The always vocal Maradona pulled no punches and even went after his former son-in-law Sergio Aguero.
Earlier in the day, France defeated Australia (2-1) in a low-key match that did not give any indication on France’s progress. The novelty of this match was the use of VAR for the first time in awarding France a penalty kick. Denmark took a decisive step in this group after defeating Peru (1-0) in a match that many felt the South Americans should have won for showing better initiative (not to mention missing a penalty).
On Sunday, Germany and Brazil made their debuts in the competition. Germany had been struggling in their friendlies as the controversy surrounding Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s photo with Turkish President Recep Erdogan has not ceased and the pair are subject to jeers from the German crowd. For their match vs. Mexico, the Germans appeared sluggish and uninspired. In contrast, the Mexicans were confident and took the game to them. Mexico scored on a breakaway and although the Germans did try to get back, their attack lacked the usual bite. Mexico could and should have scored even more as the German defense was repeatedly caught out on breakaways.
Germany Manager Joachim Löw now has a lot on his plate to fix the deficiencies as he is in an unfamiliar position after so many years of success where the Group stage was a formality.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 18, 2018
(June 17, 2018, Mexico 1-Germany 0)

For their part, Brazil took on Switzerland on what had promised to be their Tournament. In the end it may turn out to be a wake up call for Brazilians who have been riding on a wave since Tite’s appointment as Manager.
For the first twenty minutes Brazil were unstoppable as they created one chance after another with quick intricate passing. Phillipe Coutinho would score with one his trademark curling shots from outside of the box. At this point the question seemed to be just how many more would they score. Strangely, after the goal Brazil took the foot off the pedal and Switzerland slowly got back in a game that had appeared hopeless. There will be ongoing debates whether the Swiss equalizer should have been called off for a push in the box and the penalty appeal for the foul on Gabriel Jesus. However, Brazil is expected to win in spite of these. While Iceland had isolated Messi, Switzerland knew with Brazil the danger could come from many different sources and not just Neymar. Therefore, they did not crowd Neymar, however, their tactic consisted of just fouling Neymar at every sign of danger. The sight of Neymar on the ground holding his leg was the viral symbol of this match on social media. One hopes that he will not be out of commission the way he was at the last World Cup and once in full fitness (clearly not at this match) he can mark the Tournament with his stamp.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 18, 2018
(Neymar, June 17, 2018, Brazil 1-Switzerland 1)

England took to the field on Monday facing Tunisia. The English gave a fair account of themselves despite the hard fought last minute victory (2-1). They earned rare positive reviews from the home press for showing the attacking initiative rarely seen in England’s last Tournaments. New England Captain Harry Kane repaid the faith placed upon him by Gareth Southgate by doing what he does best, which is scoring goals (twice against Tunisia).

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 19, 2018
(Harry Kane, June 18, 2018, England 2-Tunisia 1)

Thus far, Southgate’s policy of giving youth a chance appears to be successful, though Dele Alli has injured and his may be out for a few days.
Southgate will need to make tactical changes to take his (indefinite) absence into account.
England’s group rivals Belgium came out firing and ran riot in the second half against World Cup debutants Panama by scoring three unanswered goals. Romelu Lukaku had been anonymous in the first half, but Belgium Captain Eden Hazard reminded him of his responsibilities at the halftime break and he replied with two goals.
On Tuesday, the first day of all the Groups were concluded with two upsets in Group H, as Japan defeated Colombia and Senegal defeated Poland.
On the same day Russia played their second match, as they took on Egypt which included Mohamed Salah.
Most observers would have been justified to question whether Russia could carry the momentum from the first win into this match (given their wretched form of these last years). However, they answered their critics with yet another win (3-1) to get to the next round.
Uruguay would join the hosts as they dispatched of Saudi Arabia (1-0) on the following day, from a Luis Suarez strike, who redeemed himself somewhat after a poor first match.
On this Wednesday, Portugal and Spain played their second matches in their groups by taking on Morocco and Iran respectively.
Portugal scored as early as the fourth minute, when who else, but Cristiano Ronaldo headed in a cross. It once again beggars belief how Cristiano Ronaldo was unmarked. Cristiano Ronaldo achieved yet another record by scoring his 85th goal for his Nation, This made him the Top International goalscorer of a European Nation (breaking Ferenc Puskas’ record of 84 goals for Hungary).
Otherwise, Portugal played a disappointing match and Morocco certainly deserved more after dominating for long periods. The North Africans were eliminated after two losses. They complained of the Refereeing and some even suggested that the Referee had even asked for Cristiano Ronaldo’s jersey. This seems unlikely and was perhaps an accusation out of frustration.
Later that day, Spain faced an Iran intent on just defending. The Spaniards were frustrated for long periods as they could find a breakthrough, until Diego Costa broke the deadlock. In the end the (1-0) scoreline did not reflect the complete Spanish domination.
On Thursday, France without really forcing itself picked up another win as they defeated Peru (1-0) to eliminate the South Americans and go to the next round.
The biggest news that day was the Argentina implosion against Croatia (0-3).
During the National Anthems, Messi was seen holding rubbing his eyes closed and his hand on his forehead as is he had a headache. This scene illustrated what was to come later as once again Messi was unable to lift Argentina.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 22, 2018
(Lionel Messi, June 21, 2018, Croatia 3-Argentina 0)

Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics again failed to get the best out of Messi and his teammates. Of course, the first goal that Argentina conceded was a horrendous error from their goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero. This was the type of error reminiscent of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius during the recent Champions League Final. Again, Sampaoli would have to answer why he started with a goalkeeper that is not even a starter at his club (Caballero is backup to Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea). His relative non-use of Higuain and Dybala will likely raise as would starting Enzo Perez (who was not even on the original 23-man squad).
On the days that followed there were even reports of a mutiny with Jorge Burruchaga waiting in the wings but Sampaoli has been maintained for the time being.
The tears of Maradona in the stands summed up one of the worst Argentinean nights in its World Cup history.
The next day, Neymar shed different kind of tears, those of joy at the conclusion of their match vs. Costa Rica as Brazil picked its first win by scoring twice in injury time with Neymar scoring the second. Neymar would explain that he had gone thorugh so much pain and sacrifice to prepare himself for the World Cup following his injury and this was his release.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 23, 2018
(Neymar’s tears, June 22, 2018, Brazil 2-Costa Rica 0)

Switzerland’s win over Serbia (2-1) drew controversy as Switzerland’s goalscorers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated by locking their fingers resembling a flying eagle. The duo are Kosovan-born and the eagle is the symbol on the flag of Albania and this was a gesture to taunt the Serbs.

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 23, 2018
(Swiss Eagle celebration, June 22, 2018, Switzerland 2-Serbia 1)

On Saturday, Belgium qualified to the next round with Lukaku and Hazard in superb form. They swept aside Tunisia (5-2) and eliminated them from the World Cup.
Mexico followed up its success with a win over South Korea (2-1) to advamce to the next round.
Germany got a lifeline in dramatic fashion as Toni Kroos scored a late winner against Sweden. The win was somewhat tarnished by the display of the German delegation who were accused of over celebrating and rubbing it in their face. This was followed by Sweden’s Jimmy Durmaz (who had given away the key free kick at the end) to be subject to racial abuse from Swedish fans (He is of Assyrian origin).

Photo From: L’Equipe, June 24, 2018
(Toni Kroos’ winner, June 23, 2018, Germany 2-Sweden 1)

On Sunday, England’s young guns defeated Panama (6-1) with Harry Kane picking up a hat trick. Southgate’s young team once again drew praise and now many are hoping for them to go far in the Cup. However, there were some who reminded the quality of the opposition and urged realistic objectives.
Robert Lewandowski’s Poland were out of the World Cup as they crumbled against Colombia with James Rodriguez back in the lineup pulling the strings.
The sight of former stars Carlos Valderrama and Rene Higuita in the stands celebrating brought back memories of the 90s glory days.

Most of the teams with big reputations have been given minor scares but everything is still left to play and modifications are still likely.
Even for Argentina, there is still a narrow chance after Nigeria’s win over Iceland.
The last round of the Group phase is upon us and still much to play for.
The World Cup is over a week old and these early displays have wetted our appetite for even more.
More drama and entertainment (and goals) promises to come our way, as we cannot wait to see the next game that comes our way.

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