Thursday, 15 July 2010

Should he stay or should he go?

Endless meetings, endless speculation and still no decision about the continuance or otherwise of Marcelo Bielsa as head coach of La Roja. The wait goes on.

All the signs pointed to a decision being made on Thursday but, following a four-hour meeting, the National Football Asssociation (ANFP), led by President Harold Mayne-Nicholls, declared that there was 'nothing new to report.' Some meeting.

From Magallanes in the South to Arica in the North, fingers were being crossed that El Loco would extend his tenure and lead the team to the next World Cup in Brazil. True, the national team had fallen to the next hosts in the Round of 16 but there was an almost universal feeling that the team had made great strides in South Africa and had presented a highly favourable view of Chilean football to the watching world.

Over the past week, Bielsa's every step has been tracked in the hope that it would give some clue as to his future. A trip to his native Rosario: did this mean that Bielsa was back with his ex? A return to Santiago: was the romance back on? He even walked proudly through the main exit of the airport, surely a signal that this man of the people was ready to embrace his adoring public once again??

The jealousy, the suspense, the agony. How much longer could El Loco give his faithful the silent treatment?

Should he stay or should he go? What is best for Chilean football? What is best for Bielsa? And most importantly, do the two coincide? As ever more questions than answers.

Let's take a look at the evidence. Bielsa's team qualified in some style for this year's jamboree in South Africa, finishing only a point behind Brazil, 5 ahead of Maradona's Argentina and some 9 points ahead of eventual semi-finalists, Uruguay. A 4-2 win away to Colombia was one of the many highlights in La Roja's 32 goal campaign.

Expectations were high for the World Cup proper and the final assessment must be that the campaign was a success. Two opening wins against Honduras and Switzerland that were, despite the 1-0 scorelines, fairly comfortable. Then came the ultimate champions, Spain. No-one could say that Chile was outclassed in this game and with a little more composure and 11 men on the field, things could have been different.

But no matter, qualification was secured to the next round for the first time since 1998. No mean achievement in itself, as was testified by the joyous parties in Plaza Italia and beyond.

Unfortunately, as 12 years ago, Chile's opponents were Brazil and this meant the bandwagon came to a sudden and shuddering halt. Bielsa has come under fire for his naive approach to this game. No disgrace in losing to Dunga's men but was the gung-ho approach the right one? Would it have been better to marry the attacking instincts of the team with a degree of midfield and defensive solidity? Maybe, but after watching the negative, anti-football tactics of Holland in the final, a commitment to the spirit of the beautiful game can only be applauded.

As Bielsa said himself after the match, 'Right or wrong, we tried to impose our methods within the idea of some noble play.'

So to the future. Copa America next year, the small matter of a World Cup Brazil in 2014. Just what's possible? Can this team improve further?

A glance at the current Chilean squad makes for happy reading. Of the 23 men in La selección, only 2 are over the age of 30 and 17 of them are 27 or under. Jewel in the crown, Alexis Sanchez, is a pup at 21. This is a team that has yet to reach its prime and in four years time they will have the experience to match their undoubted skills.

But, but, but...does Bielsa want to stay? He has been linked with positions as far afield as Japan, Mexico and Australia. Is he a careerist football coach, using each position as a stepping stone to bigger and better things? Or does his heart now truly belong to Chile?

Only he can know the answers to these questions but in football, as in any walk of life, there is a right time to say, 'My work here is done, it's time to walk away.' He might feel that, for all its potential, he's taken this team as far as it can go. Fresh challenges are always attractive suitors.

Time to nip this one in the bud right now. Let's put it in writing to Chile's adopted son:

Dear Senor Bielsa,

You're not going to find anyone else like us. It's time to come home for good. Shut the door behind you and let's start dreaming of 2014.

Yours faithfully,

La Marea Roja

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Maradona's Dream in Tatters

Argentina 0 Germany 4, Green Point Stadium, Cape Town

There is to be no famous double for Maradona just yet. After winning the World Cup as captain in 1986, a ruthless German team ended his dreams of being victorious as coach. He was despondent after the game and hinted that he could walk away from his high-pressure role.

After Brazil's demise, suddenly everyone was talking up the chances of La Albicleste in the build-up to the game, but these hopes were brutally exposed on a difficult afternoon in Cape Town. It was their second consecutive World Cup quarter-final defeat to Germany and, unlike four years ago, there was no need for a penalty shoot-out to decide matters.

Argentina were simply swept away by a vibrant and controlled display from Germany. Joachim Loew's side picked off their opponents with ease, making the game look ridiculously simple and showing that you don't always need big-name players to fashion a good team. Their counter-attacking style is proving to be extremely productive and might just lead them all the way. Four goals against England and another four against Argentina is impressive by any any standards.

Maradona's men had their chances and were always keen to try their luck from distance - Di Maria was unlucky on a couple of occasions - but they couldn't find a way to get behind the organised German defence. Breaching the Argentinian defence, on the other hand, was a breeze for Schweinsteiger and his fellow young guns.

What of Argentina's star turn? Messi had impressed in some of the previous games but he couldn't impose his will on this game and his tournament will have to be marked down as a failure. His boss predicted he would score before every game. He never did. Not really the mark of a champion.

On the touchline Maradona couldn't believe what he was witnessing. His passion for the game and his team can never be doubted, as his post-match comments revealed. He's put his heart and soul into this tournament:

'This is the most difficult experience of my life, because to [lose] in front of so many good players, such good people, such good professionals is like getting punched by Muhammad Ali. I don't have any energy left.'

He clearly has the backing of the players but all his tub-thumping and words of encouragement couldn't mask his lack of top level managerial experience. Dangerous going forward but naive at the back. A team made in their coach's likeness. He could win games single-handedly and believed his star pupil could do the same but he now faces renewed criticism over his lack of a more thought-out tactical approach.

Let's hope he returns. He's brightened up this tournament with his charisma and honesty in interviews, his emotion on the sidelines and his post-match bear hugs for his players. He will be missed.

A victory in this World Cup for Argentina would have been a victory for instinct over pragmatism, for disorder over organisation, for attack over defence. That dream for us and Maradona has sadly slipped away.

How they lined up: Romero, Demichelis, Burdisso, Heinze, Otamendi (Yellow card, Pastore, 70), Di Maria (Aguero, 76), Mascherano (Captain, Yellow card), Maxi, Higuain, Messi, Tevez

Suarez proves there's more than one Maradona

Uruguay 1-1 Ghana (Uruguay won 4-2 on pens), Soccer City, Johannesburg

'Mine is the real 'Hand Of God'. I made the save of the tournament.' Luis Suarez.

After the disappointment of Brazil's exit from South Africa 2010, Uruguay made sure there is to be South American representation in the final four of the World Cup. It took a penalty shoot-out and the most incredible final moments of perhaps any game of the 19 tournaments.

Now that the dust has settled, what to make of Suarez' handball? With time rapidly running out in extra-time he made a save from Adiyiah that his goalkeeper would have been proud of. As the ball pinballed around the Uruguyan box he managed to block one shot legitimately and then placed two hands on the follow-up header to keep it out. Red card. Penalty. Penalty blazed on to and over the bar. Cue wild celebrations from Suarez on the touchline.

Many commentators have said that this is all part of the game. Not so much cheating as opportunism. Maybe not to be applauded but certainly tolerated in the modern professional game. Uruguay coach, Oscar Tabarez had this to say after the match:

'Saying we cheated Ghana is too harsh a word to use. Yes he stuck his hand out but it's not cheating. It was instinctive.'

If Suarez is the new Maradona on the field then maybe Tabarez is the new Maradona in the press room. Come on Oscar, be serious. Your lad cheated pure and simple. He knew exactly what he was doing, let's not complicate matters.

Suarez even admitted to preparing for moments like this:

'Sometimes in training I play goalkeeper so it was worth it. There was no alternative but for me to do that.'

This was delivered with a broad grin. That is called bringing the game into disrepute. There was an alternative. It's called heading the ball.

Has he been punished enough? Unlike Henry's blatant handling against the Irish in the qualification play-off, the refere spotted Luis' infringement (well he would have had to be blind to miss it), gave the penalty to Ghana and sent Suarez from the field. The striker/ goalie will miss the semi-final.

Should he miss any potential final too? If FIFA had real balls rather than a bagful of Jabulanis, this is the course of action they would take. So of course they will do nothing. They did nothing about Henry's handball, they will do nothing about this.

Talking of Jubulanis, the adidas ball had a hand in both goals during normal time. Muntari spanked one in from some distance for the opener while Forlan levelled things up with a great free-kick up and over the wall and into the top corner. Blame was laid at the doors of both keepers, Muslera and Kingson, but they deserve some sympathy for the way the ball swerved so viciously at the last minute.

Suarez had decent chances to make himself a hero with a foot or head of God but he obviously knew that there was greater drama to be had in his own penalty box. He cast himself in the lead-role and ensured that the game was decided by a Jubulani shoot-out.

And the final scene had an Oscar worthy cameo to boot.

After an ice-cool Forlan got the ball rolling with a successful first kick, only Pereira failed to follow suit with a kick that is probably still sailing into orbit now. But his 'real' goalkeeper helped him out with a superb low save to his left to save the 4th Ghana penalty which meant it was incumbent on Abreu to make sure Suarez' antics weren't in vain.

Abreu clearly has a similar penchant for the dramatic as his pal. The dink penalty can make fools out of those brave enough to try them, but Abreu disguised his intentions well and the ball looped slowly but surely into the middle of the net as the keeper dived to his right.

Game over. The first time La Celeste had been involved in a penalty shoot-out and success at the first time of asking. They also won the first World Cup and the first after the War. Couldn't be the first team to win in Africa, could they? Bring on the Dutch.

Uruguay's still dreaming.

How they lined up: Muslera, Lugano (Captain, Scotti, 38), Fucile (Yellow card), Victorino, Pereira, Perez (Yellow card), Rios (Yellow card), Fernandez (Lodeiro, 46), Cavani (Abreu, 76), Suarez (Red card), Forlan

Friday, 2 July 2010

Bad-tempered Brazil Crash Out

Brazil 1 Holland 2, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

The favourites are out. There is to be no 6th World Cup victory for Brazil this time. A second consecutive quarter-final defeat and there will surely be calls for Dunga's head. Time to pack the bags and let the inquest begin.

The build-up to the weekend was dominated by talk of the success of the South American teams. 10 wins, 4 draws and only one defeat in the group stages. For the first time ever four South American teams had reached the quarter-finals. While the Europeans flattered to deceive, the South Americans were enjoying themselves. Chile were gone but had made many friends along the way. Now with this defeat it is up to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay to fly the flag for the continent.

To the match. Holland's game plan was clear: frustrate their opponents at every turn. And boy did it work. By the end of the game Brazil were running out of ideas and running out of patience. Bastos was substituted before he was sent-off. Melo was red-carded for a blatant stamp on Robben. There could have been more as the smiles and exuberance disappeared.

It all started so well for A Seleção. They took the lead as early as the 10th minute and the goal was one of the best of the tournament. Melo played a delightful ball straight through the heart of the Dutch defence and Robinho didn't even have to break stride before slotting firmly past Stekelenburg. Quick and incisive. Classic Brazil.

There were some lovely touches but the stop-start nature of the game meant they could never really get their rhythm going. This is a physical Brazilian team but they don't like it when the roles are reversed. There were endless tackles from behind and cynical trips. Every time there was a battle in the air for the ball it seemed to result in a blow of the referee's whistle.

Still there were glimpses of the Brazil of old. Robinho looked bright and he span beautifully on the left, burst through a tackle before finding Fabiano. The striker's first-time flick found Kaka and his curling shot was tipped over before it could find the top corner. When they snap into action like this with such pace, with the players knowing instinctively what positions to take, no-one can live with them.

Then there was a moment that recalled THAT goal from the 1970 World Cup final. Maicon was cast in the role of Carlos Alberto but his thumping drive on the stroke of half-time was tipped round the post.

Frustration for Maicon and for his manager who had spent much of the opening period raging on the touchline.

The second half started badly and got steadily worse for his team. Julio Cesar's name must now be added to the list of goalkeeping bloopers in this World Cup. He completely missed a swinging free-kick from the right and Melo continued his eventful game by heading into his own net. But Cesar must take the rap for his complete and utter misjudgement.

Could his team-mates help him to erasre the pain? They huffed and puffed. Alves dragged a shot wide from the edge of the area. Kaka tried to place a volley into the top corner but saw it go narrowly wide. Not close enough.

There were signs that the passing game was coming together again but, like the first half, it was sporadic and when the Dutch scored the second the wheels really came off.

The goal was simplicity itself. The oldest move in the book. Another cross into the box, this time from a corner, flicked on at the front post from Kuyt and Sneijder nodded in his third goal of the finals. Something was happening in Port Elizabeth and it was happening for the men in orange.

At every turn there was frustration from the men in their change strip of all blue. A heavy challenge from Alves, Robinho screaming in Robben's face and of course Melo's moment of madness. He didn't even look surprised to be sent from the field. As the dream slipped away, the plot was being well and truly lost.

As the fruitless quest for a goal to take the game into extra-time continuted, the ill-discipline kicked in with a vengeance. There was some kamikaze defending and oceans of space for Holland to grab another on the counter. Only some wasteful finishing prevented a final flourish.

The game was up for Brazil. By the end, all composure had gone and they could only try to force a goal through a succession of corners. It never came and the final verdict must be that, when placed under pressure, Dunga's men cracked.

For some the dream lives on. For Brazil it's over.

How they lined up: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio (Captain), Juan, Bastos (Yellow card, Gilberto, 62), Daniel, Melo (Red card), Silva, Kaka, Fabiano (Nilmar, 77), Robinho

Monday, 28 June 2010

Brazil Too Strong For Brave Chile

Chile 0 Brazil 3, Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg

There was to be no dream win for Chile against the might and class of Brazil in Johannesburg. They huffed and puffed, passed the ball around attractively but when it came to finding that killer final ball, they were found wanting. There was simply no way through this extremely well-organised Brazilian defence.

When it comes to the business end of a World Cup, history often proves to be an impossible opponent to overcome. So it was for Bielsa and his eleven man in sparkling white. That's not to say that Chile can't be rightfully proud of this campaign. The true spirit of the game runs through every one of the players. Maybe at times naive but they have always tried to play the game in the right fashion and have never resorted to negative tactics.

The players came out to a deafening atmosphere in a packed Ellis Park Stadium with the vuvuzelas at full throttle. The flags were brought out, cameras flashed excitedly and the anthems were sung with gusto.

The Chile anthem talks of the 'refuge against oppression'. But they could find no refuge against the oppression of the men in yellow who bided their time and instinctively sensed the moments to put their foot on the accelerator and power to victory.

As has been typical in this tournament, Chile started brightly and with confidence. The ball was being fizzed around the midfield with Sanchez and Beausejour always willing recipients. 'Chupete' Sauzo had indeed been recalled and he looked sharp and strong, holding the ball up well and always looking to thread a pass.

The first sight of goal came for Brazil though. Fabiano was released down the right but his weak shot was dragged well wide. Then Gilberto Silva produced a stinging shot from the edge of the area that Bravo had to tip round the post.

After that bright Chilean opening, Brazil were suddenly looking dangerous. Bielsa could only assume his customary crouched position on the touchline and pray that his team could create some opportunities as his team were leaving Kaka and his gang oceans of room to play in.

The first chance for Chile fell to Suazo. Put through by a drilled pass from Sanchez, he controlled the ball instantly and if his shot had more elevation it would have sailed over Julio Cesar. It didn't and Cesar saved with ease.

Chile were often guilty of over-elaboration in the final third, failing to spot the easy pass that would see their flying wingers in behind the Brazilian defence. The patience in their build-up was admirable but sometimes a more direct approach might have been the order of the day.

Chile were lucky not to concede a penalty when Lucio's legs were taken away from him in the box and then to add insult to injury for Brazil, Kaka was booked for a similar challenge at the other end. Outside the area but his name was duly in the book as his disciplinary problems continued.

Just after the half an hour mark the opening goal came. Juan leapt superbly from a corner to unleash an unstoppable header over Bravo's head. From a Chilean point of view it was disappointing to give away a free header so early on and to gift the first score.

Chile's answer was to bomb forward in search of the equaliser. But again they failed to spot the space on the right and the over-lapping full-back was well out of position. Brazil didn't need a second invitation to counter and a wonderfully quick break saw the ball eventually come to Kaka. His defence-splitting pass was inch perfect and Fabiano rounded the keeper for his third goal of the tournament. 2-0 and a mountain to climb for La Roja.

Is attack the best form of defence? Only if you have the cutting edge to make and take your chances. This was starting to look like suicide for Chile and they were in danger of being picked off with every Brazilian attack.

The interval arrived. Did Bielsa have any words of inspiration at half-time? He obviously felt the need to introduce fresh legs, throwing Valdivia and Tello into the fray. The second period began well for his men. Again they stroked the ball around purposefully but that final pass was never forthcoming.

Then came the killer blow and it was stunning in its simplicity. Ramires streaked through the middle as defenders backed off him and fed Robinho who produced a lovely cool finish into the corner without seeming to break stride. The unlikely task had swiftly become the impossible job.

Chile continued to push for a consolation goal to end the campaign on a high but every time they reached a promising position there was a wall of yellow jerseys to block their path. Valdivia volleyed jut over the bar, Sauzo turned smartly in the area and forced a save from Julio Cesar but Dunga's men didn't appear overly concerned.

The game was in the bag and Brazil could afford to take the pace out of the game and attack when the mood took them. It did when Robinho found himself in acres of room on the right but he shot from a tight angle when he could have squared the ball.
Dunga was already thinking of the quarter-final against the Netherlands, taking off his three attacking stars, Fabiano, Kaka and Robinho.

A looping shot from Chupete hit the bar, Valdivia tried his luck from range but the sun was setting on Chile's World Cup dream. The goal wouldn't come, despite Bielsa's unwavering intensity on the touchline.

There were tears in the eyes of players at the final whistle but when the dust settles they will look back on the 2010 South Africa World Cup with satisfaction...and maybe with just a little thought of 'what might have been'.

For Chile the game is is up, but with three teams in the quarter-finals and Paraguay possibly to follow, make no mistake, South America is still dreaming.

How they lined up

Chile: Bravo (Captain), Fuentes (Yellow card), Isla (Rodrigo Millar, 62 Yellow card), Contreras (Tello, 46), Jara, Carmona, Vidal (Yellow card), Gonzalez (Valdivia, 46), Sanchez, Suazo, Beausejour

Brazil: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio (Captain), Juan, Bastos, Daniel, Silva, Kaka (Yellow card, Kleberson, 81, Ramires (Yellow card), Fabiano (Nilmar, 76), Robinho (Gilberto, 85)

La Roja Clashes With Police in Plaza Italia

These were the scenes in central Santiago on Friday after Chile's match with Spain. Water cannons out in force...

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Controversy and Class as Argentina Progress

Argentina 3 Mexico 1, Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg

Argentina swept into the quarter-finals with another fine attacking display but, just like England Germany earlier in the day, the game didn't pass without controversy.

After the assistant referee inexplicably failed to see that Lampard's shot had crossed the line in the first match of the day, there was further blindness from his counterpart in Johannesburg who neglected to notice that Tevez was yards offside for the first Argentina goal.

There will be increased calls for more use of technology in these big games, and rightly so. What made matters worse in Soccer City was that Tevez's 'goal' was being replayed on the big screen in the stadium so all and sundry could see a mistake had been made. But the referee and his assistant could only stand there admiring their handiwork as by then the decision couldn't be reversed and the goal stood.

An unholy mess.

The assistant referee has two main jobs when the ball is in play. Look down the line for offside and goal-line decisions. Two complete and abject failures today.

The Mexicans were aggrieved and it looked for a minute that there would be a massive dust-up at half-time as the two squads clashed. Unsurprisingly Maradona was at the heart of the melee but sanity prevailed and the Mexicans headed to the dressing room to vent their frustration.

The game had started at some pace and Mexico arguably enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, attacking with purpose and intent. Salcido unleashed a venomous drive from some 30 metres out that he saw crash into the crossbar. Then Andres Guardado was teed up on the edge of the box but his left-foot shot narrowly failed to find the target.

An open game meant plenty of space in midfield and Messi was already looking very comfortable on the ball, collecting from deep and knitting things together in customary fashion. A strong run from the Barca man resulted in a delightful chip that had Perez hastily back-peddling.

Maradona was watching proceedings on the touchline in classic pose - arms folded, hands tucked under his armpits. But it only took the opener from Tevez to see him bounding up and down the touchline in triumph.

It was soon 2 and this time the Mexicans could only blame themselves. Ricardo Osorio limply tried to pass the ball along the edge of his penalty box but only found Higuain, who rounded the keeper and tapped in. The celebrations in the dug-out went up a notch: bear hugs all round for Maradona and co.

The Mexicans were suddenly looking vulnerable and were lucky not to fall further behind before half-time as Messi et al poured forward. First Di Maria smashed a left foot shot goal-bound, forcing a smart save. Then a flowing move ended with Higuain heading wide when he really should have hit the target.

After the mistakes of the first-half, the second half began with a moment of true quality from Tevez. No problems with offside here as he swivelled on the edge of the area and arrowed a screaming shot into the far right corner, away from the despairing dive of Perez. His reward? You guessed it - a manly embrace from his all-action coach.

Still Mexico refused to give up and they found a superb goal of their own. Hernandez spun his man expertly on the edge of the box and fired an unstoppable shot into the top left hand corner.

Game briefly back on but, despite some more Mexican pressure, in truth the game was up after Tevez's wonder goal. And probably before that at half-time. There was still time for Messi to see a shot turned over by Perez. The wait for his first goal of the finals goes on.

Argentina join Uruguay in the next round and what a match they will face: the rampant, youthful Germans in Cape Town on Saturday. If Maradona can stop hugging his players that is.

How they lined up: Romero, Demichelis, Burdisso, Heinze, Otamendi, Di Maria (Gutierrez, 79), Mascherano (Captain), Maxi (Pastore, 87), Higuain, Messi, Tevez (Veron, 69)