Thursday, 15 July 2010
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.
La Marea Roja
Sunday, 4 July 2010
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
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
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
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)
Sunday, 27 June 2010
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)
This is what is has to come to for La Roja. A Round of 16 match against the most successful team in World Cup history. If Chile against Brazil doesn't get the heartbeat going then nothing will.
History is against Bielsa's men. The last all South American tie at the World Cup was in 1998 between the same teams. Brazil ran out 4-1 winners that day on their way to yet another World Cup final.
The only other encounter between Chile and Brazil at the World Cup was the semi-final in Santiago in 1962. Again A Seleção turned on the style, registering a 4-2 win.
So the annals tell us that when Brazil play Chile in football's leading competition, three things happen. The men in yellow and green win, they score 4 goals and go on to make the final.
Chile can't take much heart from the qualification process either. Brazil triumphed 3-0 in Santiago and 4-2 in Salvador. And yet, and yet...there are still grounds for optimism for Monday's encounter.
Thankfully Bielsa sees the match as an opportunity:
'One is always enthusiastic to change history when history is not favourable. Each match gives us the opportunity to do that and tomorrow's match is a very attractive opportunity for us to reverse that trend.'
Fine words and his adoring public in Santiago can take a lot of positives from the performances so far. The opening two games, that secured the points needed to progress to the next round, were full of attacking football and positivity. They were unlucky not to score more goals against Honduras and Switzerland and were comfortably the better team in both matches.
Yes they lost to Spain but after a crazy first half in which enthusiasm got the better of them, they re-grouped well at the break, pulled a goal back and restricted the Spanish to any further goals, despite playing with ten men. Again they played with skill and invention. In Alexis Sanchez they have one of the genuine stars of the tournament and surely one day he is going to get on the score sheet.
But that first half in Pretoria has seriously hampered their chances against Dunga's team. They will be without key defenders Gary Medel and Waldo Ponce through suspension and also Marco Estrada after his unfortunate red card. Better news is that Carlos Carmona and Matias Fernandez are available for selection after missing the Spain game.
Bielsa has some head-scratching to do before selecting his starting XI. Is the time now right to bring Humberto 'Chupete' Suazo in from the cold? His battle to shake off his hamstring injury dominated the media in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. But so far he's only managed to play for 45 minutes - the first half against the Swiss. Now would be the perfect moment to make a goal-scoring return to action. If there has been one criticism of La Roja so far it's been their wastefulness in front of goal.
There is better injury and suspension news for Brazil with Kaka, Robinho and Elano all expected to return to the starting line-up after missing the game against Portugal. Felipe Melo, one of their key ball winners in midfield, is the only injury concern.
Bielsa is under no illusions about the challenge that awaits:
'Brazil are always a side to be afraid of. They still have all the creative attributes of football typical to Brazil as well as a certain amount of aggressiveness.'
His comments are, as ever, insightful. Any number of Brazilian players are capable of producing a moment of sublime skill in an instant but in their matches so far they have proved that they are also one of the most physical teams in South Africa. A potent combination, even if the fans in Rio, Sao Paulo and Salvador would prefer more emphasis on the Beautiful Game rather than the Brutal Game.
Meanwhile in Santiago, the reaction will be unprecedented if they pull off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. After qualification was secured on Friday the masses descended on Plaza Italia once again with their flags, chants and obligatory horns. The excitement in the air was palpable and it took some shock tactics on the police's part to clear the scene. Come Monday, any fan would accept a blast from a water cannon in exchange for a famous victory.
It's all to play for. Chile's biggest match since that last meeting with Brazil in 1998. Everything points to an open game. Will the status quo be preserved or is this the time for a change in fortunes? Time will tell but maybe, just maybe, they have more to offer this time around.
Saturday, 26 June 2010
Always worth checking-in with Maradona to see what's on the maestro's mind. He never disappoints.
He's in combative mood, taking on the press once again:
'Many journalists should apologize to the players. I'm not suggesting you drop your trousers, but it would be honest and great so we all get along better.'
After his pledge to run around the Obelisco in BA naked, he's clearly got something of an obsession with nudity.
But give the guy a break - he just wants a little respect:
'I am turning 50 and I am not bitter. But I get annoyed when people don't respect my players.
It isn't easy going from being nobodies back home to winning three matches at a World Cup.
"At a training camp, we had to swallow what you (journalists) all said about being a disaster, the worst Argentine team you had ever seen.
"All of a sudden we're an excellent team... the most handsome people in the 'barrio'!"
Messi and co will be looking to strut their stuff around the neighbourhood against Mexico on Sunday to try and gain a few more admiring glances. Little doubt that all eyes will be on Diego.
Plaza Italia was again the venue of choice as football-mad Chile fans celebrated La Roja's qualification to the second phase.
The parties to celebrate the wins against Honduras and Switzerland were one thing, but the euphoria reached a completely new level on Friday afternoon following the narrow defeat to the Spanish.
Here are some images:
Uruguay 2 South Korea 1, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Uruguay's terrific run at this World Cup continued with a hard-fought win over South Korea. The winning goal would have been a fitting conclusion to any game: Luis Suarez curling a wonderful shot from the edge of the box onto the post and into the net.
His celebrations were equally as good to watch, kissing his shirt; jumping ecstatically over the advertising hoardings and running to the warm embrace of his team-mates in the pouring rain in Port Elizabeth. Coach Tabarez joined in, leaping off the bench with a roar of joy, fists pumped and completely oblivious to the downpour.
South Korea put up a determined showing and can count themselves unlucky that they didn't take the game to extra-time. The difference between the two teams was probably the quality of strikers. Uruguay has Suarez and Forlan, two players who are putting in consistent performances and providing the cutting edge that is necessary in any successful team.
Suarez is now the joint leading-scorer in South Africa with 3 goals. He has scored 55 goals in 61 games this season for Ajax and Uruguay. He could be on any number of shopping lists this summer.
Not only did he grab the winner, but also the opening goal in the first half. Forlan was the provider, crossing from the left to his mate who had the simplest task of tapping home. But unfortunately it will have to go down as another goalkeeping clanger with Jung Sung-Ryong caught between staying on his line and coming for the ball. In the end he did neither. Suarez accepted the gift with glee.
Korea came back strongly in the second half, showing great energy and ultimately finding the equaliser. A bit of a scramble in the box led to Lee Chung-Yong heading into the empty net. With the winds in their sails they might have thought this was their day.
But Suarez ultimately made the difference and he could have had a hat-trick. Before his superb second he was left completely unmarked in the box but couldn't get his weak header on target. He more than made up for it five minutes later.
It's La Celeste's best World Cup return since 1970 when they reached the semi-finals. They won't have a better chance to emulate that achievement with Ghana or USA waiting in the quarters.
And before we sign off let's take a quick look at Tabarez' pre-match comments. Sounds like he wants to give Maradona a run for his money in the off-the-wall soundbite stakes:
'There's a saying among coaches that football is like a short blanket: it covers your head or it covers your feet, and if it covers your head, your toes are in the air.'
If it's a saying among coaches then they clearly have their own secret code. Maybe Bielsa or Maradona could shed some light on the blanket issue. Having your toes in the air doesn't sound conducive to playing the beautiful game so maybe he's got a point.
In fact anything in the air is a no-no for wise old Oscar:
'We don't want to build castles in the sky, but we are certainly not going to give up on anything and my players have shown that in each of the matches they have played so far.'
One thing that is clear is that things are warming up nicely back home in Uruguay:
'Apparently, our matches are being watched in schools and in shopping malls, and children and young people are following us back home. There seems to be a link between this team and the people of Uruguay.
Whether that will be enough to progress in the tournament, we will have to see as we play our matches. But Uruguayans have decided that they have reason to party, and we hope that will be the case today.'
Party on Uruguay.
How they lined up: Muslera, Lugano (Captain), Godin (Victorino, 46), Fucile, Pereira, Pereira (Lodeiro, 74), Perez, Arevalo Rios, Cavani, Suarez (Fernandez , 84), Forlan
Friday, 25 June 2010
Chile 1 Spain 2, Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
So the bare facts are these. Chile, despite losing to Spain 2-1, make it a clean sweep for the South American teams in the 2010 World Cup. For the first time ever five South American teams progress to the second round. Chile will play Brazil on Monday in one of many mouth-watering Round of 16 ties.
But these facts do not even begin to describe the drama that unfolded at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria. Or the lack of discipline Chile showed on the big stage. La Roja began in the positive fashion that has been typical of their performances in South Africa so far. But then they pressed the self-destruct button and it is to their credit, and Bielsa's management, that they somehow found a way back into the match and did enough to qualify.
Were the players too pumped up? In a frantic opening period, there were some reckless tackles and Chile can have no complaints over the resulting yellow cards. The pressure Chile were exerting on Spain was impressive but they just went too far and Medel and Ponce were soon in the book. What's more they both now miss the next game. Ponce was particularly stupid, kicking out at Torres for no apparent reason and he was lucky to avoid a straight red. Then Estrada followed suit, diving into a tackle when prudence was the order of the day.
But despite these aberrations Chile were making all the running and playing some sparkling football. Alexis was heavily involved again, showing some delightful touches and incisive dribbling. Then a delightful dummy and spin from Beausejour saw him set free in the box. Unfortunately his cross was just behind Gonzalez and the ex-Liverpool man couldn't find the target with his shot.
Bookings aside, so far so good. Then came a further moment of madness, this time from captain and keeper, Bravo. He charged out of his box to deny Torres but instead of sending the ball into row Z, he put it straight into the path of Villa. The Barca man still had much to do but a delightful left-foot chip saw the Spaniards take the lead.
Beausejour almost made the perfect response but his attempted dink over captain Casillas was deflected just wide. But Chile were more than making a game of this one.
Until further disaster struck. A patient move from Spain led to Iniesta slotting home from just inside the box. To be 2-0 down was bad enough but then a glance at the referee, nicknamed Dracula in his native Mexico, saw him brandishing a red card at Estrada. Replays were needed to discover the reason why and looking at the incident again it looked harsh. It seemed that Estrada had clipped Torres' heels but how much intent was there was highly debatable. Hard to take but now a third Chilean player was suspended for the next round.
Half-time was needed and quickly.
Biesla decided on two changes at half-time. Surely a wise decision when playing with ten men to keep legs fresh. Millar and Paredes were on for Valdivia and Sanchez and the double substitution made immediate dividends. A smart piece of build-up play led to Millar receiving the ball on the edge of the area. His speculative shot took a wicked deflection of Pique and the ball was nestling in the back of the net. Game on and just the piece of luck that La Roja needed.
But with Fabregas now on the field and controlling possession for Spain , Chile, with a man down, couldn't create any further chances. Sanchez looked like being the one man who could give them some respite from the Spanish pressure but he was surprisingly removed from the fray, Orellana on his place.
The match then slowly ground to a standstill as both teams realised that, with Switzerland drawing with Honduras, the result was enough to see them both through. A rather farcical stand-off ensued with Spain happy to stroke the ball around the half-way line. Biesla's men seemed to accept the situation and the roar in the stadium and around Santiago that greeted the final whistle proved that the public were fully behind them.
After a breathless and action-packed first half when it looked like the wheels were coming off their World Cup campaign, maybe you couldn't blame their caution. If they can play with the same intensity and invention while keeping their heads at the same time, they can give anyone at this tournament a game.
Roll on Monday.
First stop - Plaza Italia.
How they lined up: Bravo (Captain), Carrizo (Yellow card), Isla, Medel (Yellow card), Jara, Vidal, Valdivia (Millar, 46),Gonzalez (Paredes, 46), Estrada (Yellow/ Red card), Sanchez (Orellana, 65), Beausejour
Brazil 0 Portugal 0, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban
Not a great deal to get the pulse racing in Durban as Brazil and Portugal played out a fairly tame scoreless draw. It's the first time Brazil have failed to score in a World Cup match since 1978 and by the end they looked completely devoid of ideas and inspiration.
But Dunga's men duly top the group and they will play the runners-up of Chile's group on Monday. Portugal join them in the last 16 and will play the winners of La Roja's group on Tuesday. Some intriguing matches on the horizon.
Brazil dominated possession in both halves but they looked more threatening in the first period, particularly down the right where Maicon and Alves were combining well. The best chance fell to Nilmar but his flicked shot was expertly turned on to the post by Portuguese keeper, Eduardo. Shortly after, Fabiano was hanging his head in shame as his header failed to find the target from point-blank range.
But we actually saw more of the physical side of A Seleção than the flowing football we have become accustomed to. There were endless niggly fouls and the teams shared 7 yellow cards in total, resulting in 5 minutes of added time at the end of the game. Melo's booking in the opening period was particularly cynical. He was substituted soon after, maybe to ensure he didn't get sent off.
Brazil were lucky to escape worse punishment. Firstly a blatant handball from Juan prevented a flying Ronaldo from bearing down on goal. As the last man he was fortunate to escape with a yellow card. Then Tiago was booked for diving in the box when on another day it could well have been a penalty for Portugal.
Come the second half, Portugal looked the more dangerous team, counter-attacking with pace on the break. Ronaldo was starting to time his runs well and he was freed a couple of times down the left. But the final, killer pass was never forthcoming. When the Real Madrid man was thwarted again by Lucio after another burst at goal the ball did, at last, fall to a team mate. But Meireles' shot on the run produced a fine save from Julio Cesar.
There could have been late drama when, from a Portugal free-kick, Lucio looked to have handled the ball. But there weren't too many appeals from Ronaldo et al and the moment passed. With neither team really pushing hard enough for victory, a draw was a fair result.
When the stakes are higher let's hope we see a better showing from Brazil. One thing Dunga probably learned is that he needs to have his first choice eleven on the pitch. Without Kaka (suspended), Elano (injured) and Robinho (rested) they simply couldn't find a way through a very well-organised Portuguese defence.
After this performance and in a World Cup full of surprises are Brazil still favourites? And if not them, who? Make no mistake, this tournament is wide open.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
How appropriate it is, in this Chile´s bicentenary year, that the old Colonial masters stand between La Roja and a place in the next round of the World Cup.
In September of this year, the celebrations will begin in earnest but there might just be time for a few more parties before then. The BBQs will be fired up at lunchtime tomorrow in homes all over Santiago and beyond, the crowds will flock to Plaza de la Constitucion to watch the action on the big screen and there are sure to be more than a few ´half-days´ taken.
It could be a fairly unproductive afternoon in the city´s offices as people rush home in time for the 2.30pm kick-off. For those that can´t find a reason to leave the office, it will be off with the shirt and tie and on with the famous red jersey. Given the right result, the city might just burst with excitement. Think you´ve seen some celebrations already? You ain´t seen nothing yet.
Only once before has Chile played Spain in the biggest sporting event in the world. That was 29 June 1950 in the Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro. The spoils that day went to Spain who won 2-0. 60 years is a long time to wait to turn the tables but opportunity knocks for Chile today.
Today´s game is arguably Chile´s biggest match since the encounter with Brazil in the Round of 16 in 1998. History could yet repeat itself: if Chile manages to progress Dunga´s men are one of their potential opponents in the next stage.
The only other time Chile has managed to negotiate a way into the second round was in the glorious tournament of 1962, which they hosted. That was certainly Chile´s finest hour, losing only to, yes you guessed it, Brazil in the semi-finals.
There´s certainly a sense that the world order is shifting ever so slightly in South Africa, and it´s the European teams that are struggling. Spain started the tournament as champions elect in many people´s eyes, but they have flattered to deceive thus far. They will not be blind to the fortunes of France and Italy. The 2006 finalists are already on the plane home. Spain will be anxious to avoid making it an unwelcome hat-trick.
So what do Chile need to do today? Well for starters, play with the same vim and vigour they showed in the first two matches. Secondly banish any thoughts of settling for the draw that would see them top the group. If the game finishes all-square there will be no complaints from anyone, but the mentality of the players must be to attack. Bielsa will be reinforcing this message in the moments before the game but, thankfully, with the players at his disposal they do not have any other option.
If they are to make history, then surely their star of the tournament so far, Alexis Sanchez, will be to the fore. He´s dismissed comparisons of himself with Cristiano Ronaldo but his performances in the opening games have made them inevitable. Today Alexis has the chance to really arrive on the world stage and prove that he can turn on the magic against quality opponents. A first World Cup goal would help. And he might just have the chance to go toe-to-twinkling-toe with Ronaldo yet. If not Brazil, Portugual could well be waiting for La Roja next up.
But we get ahead of ourselves. One game at a time as the footballing cliche goes. Play with pride, play with passion and play them off the park.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Uruguay 1 Mexico 0, Rustenburg
Uruguay swept into the Round of 16 as group winners after a relatively comfortable victory against Mexico. With both teams needing only a draw to progress there were fears that both teams would play out a dull draw. Not a bit of it and in the end a narrow defeat for Mexico was enough to secure its own passage into the next phase.
Uruguay made all the running in the first half and just before the break the decisive goal came. Cavani was freed down the right and his wonderful swinging cross found the head of Suarez. He had the simple task of nodding it past Perez and finally opening his World Cup account after countless chances in the previous matches.
La Celeste could have doubled its lead early in the second half. This time Forlan was the provider from a free-kick but Lugano's header brought the best out of Perez who made a wonderful, scrambling save.
There were chances for Mexico, who played with far more spirit and adventure in the second period. The best opportunity fell to Rodriguez who met an inch perfect cross with a flying, diving header. With the goal at his mercy it should have been the equalizer but he sent it agonisingly wide.
As Mexico pushed forward there were plenty of gaps for Uruguay to exploit on the counter attack but in the end one goal was enough. Oscar Tabarez can already be proud of his team's efforts but his team is going to be around for a little longer yet.
How long will this unbeaten run last? There have now been 12 matches involving South American teams at the World Cup and still the five teams remain unbeaten. It's still early days but 10 wins and 2 draws with 21 goals scored and only 4 conceded is some start to the tournament.
But more than the victories, it's the style of play they have all employed that has been so heartening to watch. Whereas the European teams have been cautious, uninspiring and riddled with in-fighting, the teams from Latin America have let the football do the talking and some of the stand-out performers thus far have come from the continent. The emphasis is on attack and the likes of Sanchez, Messi, Kaka, Fabiano, Forlan and Suarez have all lit up the tournament at various stages while hinting that there is a lot more to come.
So where do we stand?
Brazil are already into the next round and if they can avoid defeat to Portugual on Friday they will be through as group winners. Kaka will miss that game after his unfortunate sending-off against Ivory Coast and Dunga will need to find a way to restrict Ronaldo and the free-scoring Portuguese. With Fabiano finding his shooting boots in the last game there could be a few goals in that one.
Uruguay has simply gone from strength to strength and after another win, this time against Mexico, Forlan and company top the group and cruise into the next round. Not only has Uruguay knocked out the 2006 finalists, France, but also the hosts, South Africa. This is the first time in World Cup history that the hosts have failed to qualify for the second round. No mean feat and now Tabarez can look forward to an encounter with South Korea rather than Argentina. Clearly a less daunting task but it´s unlikely that Tabarez will be underestimating anyone.
Maradona's men, meanwhile, have swept into the Round of 16, scoring 7 goals in the process. They too are group winners and they'll be playing Mexico on Saturday. Messi has still to register his first goal of these finals which must be a cause of concern for the Mexicans. He deserved better against Greece but after ghosting past a couple of defenders he was denied by the woodwork. It´s going to come soon.
Paragauy surely has one foot in the next round with only a game against New Zealand to come. Another win will see Martino's men beat Italy to the top of the table and a likely face-off with Japan or Denmark.
And then there is Chile. Ah Chile. La Roja has played some of the most attractive football in the tournament but, ironically with 6 points secured already, it finds itself in the most vulnerable position due to the combination of results thus far. Avoid defeat to Spain and they will head the group but a defeat and a win for Switzerland against Honduras will see the group decided on goal difference. Let's hope there's no last minute heartache come Friday afternoon.
The good news is that Biesla´s men are unlikely to sit back and hope for a draw. They only know one way to play and if they can start to take the opportunites they are creating, Spain will be under pressure. There´s certainly a big incentive to winning the group as this looks to be the best way to avoid a meeting with Brazil. While the neutrals might welcome this game, Biesla would probably prefer to give it a miss.
South America? Still dreaming...
Results so far:
Uruguay 0 France 0
Argentina 1 Nigeria 0
Paraguay 1 Italy 1
Brazil 2 North Korea 1
Chile 1 Honduras 0
Uruguay 3 South Africa 0
Argentina 4 South Korea 1
Paraguay 2 Slovakia 0
Brazil 3 Ivory Coast 1
Chile 1 Switzerland 0
Uruguay 1 Mexico 0
Argentina 2 Greece 0
Group fixtures still to be played:
Paraguay v New Zealand
Brazil v Portugal
Chile v Spain
Monday, 21 June 2010
Chile 1 Switzerland 0, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Chile has certainly not come to this World Cup to make up the numbers. La Roja picked up where they left off against Honduras with another energetic and purposeful performance. All that is required now is a little more composure in the final third of the field. As it turned out 1 goal was enough against a defence-orientated Swiss team who seemed content to hold out for a draw once they were, somewhat harshly, reduced to ten men.
From the off there was an urgency about Biesla´s men, always looking to set Sanchez scampering down the right or releasing Beausejour on the left. The emphasis is clearly on playing with as much width as possible and there were chances aplenty in both halfs.
The best opportunity in the first half fell to that man Sanchez but after expertly controlling a centre from Beausejour on his chest, he shot rather tamely at Benaglio in the Swiss goal. Before that Isla forced a smart save from the keeper with a blistering drive from outside the box.
But, not for the first time in this World Cup, the referee decided to upstage the players with some poor decisions. First he booked Ponce for raising his foot when it was by no means dangerous. Then came the real clanger as he sent Behrami from the field for what he must have thought was an elbow on Vidal. The Chilean midfielder must take a portion of the blame: there is no excuse for a player clutching his face and falling to the ground in apparent agony when the contact is, at best, minimal. Chile picked up six bookings of their own and the majority of them left the players scratching their heads in bemusement.
The only further disappointment from a Chilean point of view was the half-time substitution of ´Chupete´ Suazo. After all the hype about his injury his only real contribution to the first half was to get booked. He looked off the pace and only Biesla can know if he was fit to start.
His absence didn´t affect La Roja´s attacking spirit. Following the red card, Ottmar Hitzfeld sacrificied one of his strikers, Frei, to accommodate another midfield player. However this only served to play into Chile´s hands and for the second period they were camped inside the Swiss half. There was a roar all over the city when the ball finally found the back of the net. But the excitement was soon tempered by a glance at the assistant referee´s raised flag. The goal was rightly disallowed for offside.
Then it was Sanchez´s turn to try his luck. He robbed a hesitant Von Bergen, sprinted goalwards but then saw another farely lacklustre shot saved by Benaglio. Still, the men in red didn´t have to wait much longer to find a way to break the deadlock.
This time a marginal offside decison went in their favour. Paredas sprung the trap, skipped past the goalkeeper and from a tight angle delivered the perfect cross for Mark Gonzalez to head home. The cheers no longer had to be stifled and rather than settling for the victory it is to the players credit that they perserved with their high-tempo game and pressed for another goal.
Paredas was suddenly at the heart of everything but he could only blaze over when put through by Gonzalez. Then it was Gonzalez´s turn to be wasteful, going for placement rather than power from inside the box and seeing his shot comfortably saved.
There was a late scare when the Swiss substitute, Derdiyok, could only shoot wide with the goal at his mercy. But no matter, Chile held on and now sit pretty at the top of Group H with the final group game against Spain to come.
Again it was time to take to the streets for the fans who had put work on hold to watch the morning game. The streets were strewn with paper and everywhere you turned there was the blaring of a horn, a toot from a car or a joyous chant. There is a wonderful sense of the city uniting behind the team and of an immense pride in the style of football Chile is showing the world.
Qualification for the second round is now within La Roja´s grasp but Biesla will be sounding a note of caution ahead of Friday´s encounter. A point would be enough to see Chile top the group and avoid a probable Round of 16 match with Brazil. But a defeat and a win for the Swiss against Honduras would see the group decided on goal difference. Let´s hope Sanchez et al are not ruing some of those missed chances come Friday afternoon.
How they lined up: Bravo, Carrizo (Yellow card), Isla, Medel (Yellow card), Jara, Carmona (Yellow card), Vidal (Gonzalez, 46), Fernandez (Yellow card Paredes 64), Sanchez, Suazo (Yellow card Valdivia, 46 Yellow card), Beausejour
Sunday, 20 June 2010
Brazil 3 Ivory Coast 1, Soccer City, Johannesburg
Paraguay 2 Slovakia 0, Bloemfontein
It's starting to click for the men in yellow. This wasn't Samba football from start to end but there were some glorious glimpses of the potential of this team and a welcome couple of goals from striker, Fabiano. Long way to go but after the stuttering form of the European teams, Brazil is the clear favourite to win yet another World Cup.
In fact it was turning into a thoroughly satisfactory night until Kaka was sent from the field with around 5 minutes remaining after picking up a couple of bookings in quick succession. His second booking was never a yellow card and Abdelkader Keita needs to take a long hard look at himself for his shameful play acting. Kaka will be suspended for the final group game against Portugal. A real shame as he displayed moments of real class. Zidane, looking on from the stands, could no doubt empathise with his plight.
He created the first for Fabiano. Where most teams try to go round the back of the opposition, Dunga's men are happy to back their skills and find a way through the middle. A neat one-two saw Fabiano clear and his shot high into the roof of the net from a tight angle was nothing short of stunning.
Fabiano doubled his and Brazil's tally in the second half. This time the goal was all of his own making, swivelling in the box and using his left foot to rifle the ball home. However replays suggested he may have handled when bringing the ball under control.
Kaka's darting run down the left and glorious cross set up the third for Elano and by this time A Seleção was in cruise control. Still time for a consolation for Drogba and the regrettable incident that saw Kaka sent off but all in all a decent night's work and qualification for the next round assured. Not that it is ever easy to please the Brazilian fans. For many this was no more than a workmanlike performance that only fitfully sparked into life. England, France and Italy would kill for such mediocrity.
After the game Dunga made it clear what he thought about Kaka's red card:
'Those in charge of controlling the spectacle need to know what is football and what is not. It's hard to play with the style everybody wants if the referee allows this to happen.'
Not too much attention on Paraguay but Gerardo Martino's men are quietly but effectively plotting a path to the next round. A convincing win over Slovakia means that a win over New Zealand will see them top the group, no mean feat when they are in the same pool as the reigning champions.
Two cracking goals. The first from Vera, flicking it in with the outside of his right foot after a beautiful through ball from Barrios. Riveros sealed the win late on with a crashing left foot shot that left the keeper with no chance.
Once again it seems to be incumbent on the South American teams to play the attractive football in this World Cup. Few of the European teams would be brave enough to start with 3 men up front but with Valdez, Barrios and Santa Cruz at his disposal why wouldn't Martino go for broke. It's paying dividends so far.
The main man was happy:
'I think we fully deserved the victory. My side dominated for practically the entire 90 minutes.
'In the first half we could have scored on more than one occasion given the chances we created. After the break it was a more balanced affair but we still risked little.
'This is a very important victory because it puts us one step closer to the second round.'
If Los Guaraníes can secure victory against New Zealand then they could be up against Japan or Denmark in the Round of 16. Could just be the start of something special...
Friday, 18 June 2010
Brazil 2 North Korea 1, Johannesburg, Ellis Park
With so much talk about the ball being used in South Africa, it was pleasing to watch at least one player bend it to his control and whim. And of course who else would it be than a Brazilian?
Maicon's swerving right-foot shot from a seemingly impossible angle against North Korea was surely the individual goal of the tournament to date and it only served to underline the lack of flair elsewhere.
Ok you could argue Dunga's men were not exactly at their flowing, samba best but they are always worth watching if they can produce moments like these. Did he mean it or not? Surely if he meant to cross the ball then he would have used the inner part of his foot to send it away from the goalkeeper. By wrapping his outside foot around the much maligned Jabulani he deliberately wrong-footed Ri Myong-Guk in the Korean goal. Not quite the Roberto Carlos famous banana free-kick...but not far-off. Some goal.
The second goals was also inherently Brazilian in style. Robinho was the creator, threading a beautiful pass through to Elano, who barely had to break stride before slotting it nonchalantly into the bottom corner. When it all comes together the Samba Kings can make the game look ridiculously easy.
That's not to say North Korea didn't cause Dunga's men a few problems, as was evident from the wonderful goal that brought them back into the match. There aren't going to be to many problems with any ball if you keep your head over it and give it a good wallop. Ji Yun-Nam certainly did this following an excellent first touch to bring the thing under control. Unfortunately for the Koreans it came a little too late to mount a desperate, final charge.
Interesting game next up for Brazil: Drogba and Ivory Coast on Sunday. Robinho looks to be fit and firing but Kaka needs to shrug off his niggling injuries and Fabiano could do with a goal. If Brazil needs any more motivation then how about the fact that some commentators are saying that Argentina has taken over the role of entertainers in this World Cup?
Now that just won't do. Time to start up the drums and get the party started. Maicon will show the way...
How they lined up: Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio (Captain), Juan, Bastos, Melo (Ramires, 84, Yellow card), Elano (Daniel, 73), Silva, Kaka (Nilmar, 78), Fabiano, Robinho
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Argentina 4 South Korea 1, Soccer City, Johannesburg
After wasting a hatful of chances against Nigeria, there was to no repeat for Argentina against South Korea. A thumping 4-1 win saw Maradona's side stamp its class on this World Cup and demonstrate that they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Messi was again at the heart of all Argentina's good play, heavily involved in all 4 goals and putting a delightful chip just wide after beating players with ease on the edge of the box. The comparisons with his Manager are only going to intensify as the weeks go by. But it was Higuain who ultimately grabbed the headlines with the first hat-trick of the tournament.
A inswinging goal free-kick from Messi started the ball rolling. The Korean defence couldn't deal with it and it was left to Park Chu-Young to apply the decisive touch into his own net. Messi then combined with Maxi Rodrgiguez from another free-kick to allow the latter to cross into the Korean box. It was flicked on and Higuain rose to head his first past Jung Sung-Ryong between the Korean sticks.
There was a mini-scare on the stroke of half-time as terrible defending from Dimichelis allowed Lee Chung-Yong to pull one back with a deft finish. Could Argentina be exposed at the back by more talented teams later in the competition? 2-1 at the break and there was work for Maradona to do.
His players responded in the second half, although South Korea had a glorious chance to make it 2-2. Yeom Ki-Hun really should have hit the target after being presented with a one-on-one chance agaist Romero. Argentina survived and Messi was inevitably to the fore for the next goal, first seeing his shot saved and then his second, from the follow-up, hit the post. Thankfully for La Albiceleste the second rolled across the goal-line and it was the simplest of tap-ins for Higuain.
His third was only a matter of minutes away as Aguero stabbed over a cross after being released by Messi. Higuain headed home the cross with ease but in truth it was probably more difficult to miss. The match ball for the Real Madrid striker and a timely confidence boost.
But as always with Argentina it's sensible to leave the last words to Maradona. It's an 'easy' job for him at the moment:
'When you have amazing players like I have, then my job is an easy one.'
As usual there were plenty of hugs and kisses for his team after the game but don't worry it's just good old-fashioned male-bonding:
'I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old. But I like to acknowledge and congratulate my players when they play as well as they did today.'
And after his recent verbal sparring with Platini and Pele, when he told Pele he should, 'go back to the museum,' there were some conciliatory words:
'I want to say sorry to Platini - but not to Pele.'
Good to have you at the party Diego.
How they lined up: Romero, Demichelis, Heinze (Yellow card), Samuel (Burdisso, 23), Di Maria, Mascherano (Captain, Yellow card), Gutierrez (Yellow card), Maxi, Higuain (Bolatti, 82), Messi, Tevez (Aguero, 75)
Uruguay 3 South Africa 0, Pretoria
Attack certainly seems the best form of defence for South America's finest. Following Chile's refreshing brand of attacking football, Uruguay took the hint to overwhelm the hosts, South Africa in the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
A scoreline of 3-0 did not flatter them, such was the range of options available to them in the last third of the field. Tabarez decided to play Cavani up front with Suarez and Forlan and the threesome didn't let him down. Forlan was perhaps the most impressive of the trio and it was his long-range shot from around 30 yards that found the top corner, via a small deflection. Suarez found space in the box before half-time but he fired into the side-netting when he could have squared to more favourably placed team-mates.
South Africa threatened only briefly but La Celeste (although playing in white) had to wait until 10 minutes before the end to grab a deserved second. Khune, in the South African goal, can have few complaints about the penalty he conceded, diving in with his feet to bring down Suarez. Maybe he could argue that Suarez was going away from goal but really he must have half-expected the accompanying red card. Forlan was not about to let the Bafana Bafana off the hook, rifling his penalty into the top corner past the substitute keeper Josephs.
The scoring wasn't quite over. Suarez found space in the box again following a long ball and this time he had the sense to send over an expert chip for Alvaro Pereira to half head/ half chest it into the net.
Again like Chile, this win had been a long time coming. Not since 1990 had they won a World Cup game, also with Tabarez in charge. What price back-to-back victories with Mexico up next for Uruguay? Tabarez seems to have released the shackles and with Forlan and Suarez in this form there has to be every chance they will progress further.
How they lined up: Muslera, Lugano (Captain), Godin, Fucile (Fernandez, 71), Pereira, Pereira, Perez (Gargano, 90), Rios, Cavani (Sebastian Fernandez, 89), Suarez, Forlan
Chile 1 Honduras 0, played in Nelpsruit, celebrated wildly in Santiago
It's been far too long for a football-mad nation like Chile. 12 years since their last appearance in the World Cup and 48 years to the very day since their last victory, a 1-0 win against Yugoslavia in the third place play-off match of 1962. After this thrilling, but ultimately tense, victory over Honduras it was clear to see how much it meant to the people of the Santiago.
Much has been made of the deafening sounds of the vuvuzelas inside the South African grounds, but they were more than matched by the incessant blaring of horns in and around Plaza Constitución.
The early morning gloom wasn't about to stop the hoards congregating around the huge big screen that had been erected outside the Palacio de la Moneda. In fact there was a lovely contrast between La Roja's fans in Nelspruit, resplendent in their bright red shirts and basking in the sunshine, and the fans in the Plaza, wrapped up against the cold, waiting for the light to come.
And when the TV station cut to a commercial break before the Chilean anthem was completed, the passionate crowd was more than happy to accept the challenge and finish it off. There were big cheers too for President Sebastian Perera who was shown taking his seat for the game in Dichato, scene of much devastation during the earthquake earlier this year. Although most cheers were reserved for absent striker Humberto Suazo who had to spend the duration of the match on the bench. His time will come.
The fans' enthusiasm was matched by the actions of the players on the pitch, who were clearly ready to make up for lost time. Make no mistake, this was a vibrant performance, bursting with life and energy. From the outset there was a confidence (dare I say swagger) about much of their play, particularly from the irrepressible ALexis Sanchez. Always willing to receive the ball, his constant driving runs were a feature of both halfs and most of La Roja's best moments involved him. One game against Honduras isn't enough to make a reputation but all eyes will be on him in the next 2 matches.
The goal when it came was typical of the direct and exciting brand of football Chile is trying to play. Following more good work from Sanchez, a lovely through ball released Mauricio Isla and his cross was just about bundled in by Beausejour to complete a flowing move. It was the least La Roja deserved. It wasn't just Sanchez - Valdivia was very bright in midfield and the Biesla must take praise for setting his team up to play in such a fashion. After a few stodgy games this was just what the tournament needed.
If there were fears that Chile would run out of steam in the second half, these fears were soon allayed by more positive play from Biesla's team. Sanchez looked sure to get on the score sheet but when presented with a clear sight of goal inside the box, he could only fire wide. However the best chance to double the lead fell to Waldo Ponce. His diving header from only 6 yards out was not strong enough and Valladares in the Honduras goal made a wonderful, scrambling save. If Ponce had gone with his foot instead of his head then surely La Roja would have had the 2nd goal it deserved.
But the goal never materialised, despite Sanchez being given the freedom of the right wing by the Hondurans. Every free-kick from Chile looked like creating a goal-scoring chance but in the end Biesla's men had to settle for 1 and a priceless victory. The fans were not going to let the lack of goals stand in the way of a good celebration as they swarmed into Baquedano, flags waving and a chant of 'Chi-Chi-Chi...Che-Che-Che...' never far from earshot.
But with Switzerland unexpectedly beating Spain will Chile pay for its lack of goals? It was clearly on Biesla's mind after the game:
'We could have scored more goals and we were on top. You can't foresee what will happen, but if the group is decided in that way [on goal difference] then we will rue the chances we missed.'
A note of caution but for now there is only optimism and excitement ahead of the match against the Swiss on Monday.
How they lined up: Bravo (Captain), Ponce, Isla, Medel, Carmona (Yellow card), Vidal (Contreras, 81), Valdivia (Gonzalez, 87), Fernandez (Yellow card), Millar (Jara, 52), Sanchez, Beausejour
Monday, 14 June 2010
Paraguay 1 Italy 1, Cape Town
Almost, almost. Paraguay was close to delivering the first real shock of the 2010 World Cup against the reigning holders, Italy, in the Cape Town Stadium. Los Guaraníes took the lead in the first half and held it until midway through the second until the Azzuri finally managed to find an equaliser. As it was the men in red and white had to settle for the satisfaction of maintaining South America's unbeaten start to the tournament.
Both goals came from dead-ball situations but while there can be nothing for praise for La Albirroja's opener, Antonin Alcaraz, in the Paraguayan goal, will be kicking himself for the mistake that allowed Italy a way back into the match. His flailing left hand was nowhere near the ball following an innocuous looking corner and it was the simplest task for De Rossi to nod home. After Robert Green's clanger against the USA, Alcaraz clearly fancied becoming a member of the dodgy keeper club. He's in.
It has to be said that this was another disappointing encounter, short of clear cut chances. Paraguay will be doubly disappointed about the error for the goal as they had largely reduced the Italians to shooting from long range. True they spent a lot of time defending but this was certainly one that got away. Then again maybe it was better to play the Italians's first-up, notorious slow starters that they are.
Paraguay took the lead in the 39th minute. Aureliano swung in a free-kick from distance and Alcaraz rose highest to send a firm header into the bottom right-hand corner. The new Wigan Athletic signing was mobbed by his jubilant team-mates as they celebrated his first goal for his country.
There must have been an extra spring in their step when they came out for the second half as they realised that the experienced Italian keeper, Buffon, was staying in the changing room. Maybe he was making sure that his name wasn't inducted into the Goalkeeping Gaffe Hall of Fame. He needn't have worried: only a snap shot from Vera was close to troubling his replacement, Marchetti.
With no other clear-cut opportunities for Paraguay, the response from Italy duly came, leaving Gerardo Martino's men dreaming of what might have been. The coach was thrilled with the result:
'We played this game equally against the current world champions. To play against such a rival with such skills is a very good sign for us.'
With Slovakia and New Zealand to come there must be now a renewed belief in the camp that the Round of 16 is a more than achievable aim.
Sunday, 13 June 2010
Argentina 1 Nigeria 0, Ellis Park Stadium
A bullet-like diving header from Gabriel Heinze, ensured that Maradona's men kicked off their World Cup campaign with victory at Ellis Park Stadium.
Although the goal came as early as the 6th minute, La Albiceleste could not find a further way past Enyeama in the Nigerian goal, despite countless chances. Messi was in ominously good form, stringing everything together and sending a clear message that he is ready to come to the party.
A driving run into the box from the Barca maestro led to the first real chance of the match but Higuain's shot was side-footed wide with the goal at his mercy. Messi came again moments later but his vicious drive was tipped over the bar.
But the hoards of Argentinian fans in the ground did not have to wait long for the opener. A Veron corner was met with a wonderful, flying header from Heinze into the top corner. The ex-Manchester United full-back was ecstatic and the bench celebrated as if the World Cup was in the bag and on the plane back to Buenos Aires.
Higuain wasted another glorious chance later in the half after being put through by Tevez. One-on-one with the keeper it really should have been net bulging time, but his effort was saved. More smart work from Messi almost led to his first goal of the tournament. A quick one-two from a free-kick on the right saw Messi marauding into the area and curling a left foot shot goal-bound. But Enyeama was his equal, a diving save pushing it past the post.
A similar chance followed in the second half after a surging run from Tevez on the break. This time Messi's curling shot was just wide of the goal. It was one of those days in front of goal for the star striker. Another give and go (very reminiscent of his boss in 86) saw him toe-to-toe with Nigeria's numero uno once more but his shot was straight at the keeper and his account remained at zero. One of these days he is going to score a hatful. But after a few iffy opening games it was a pleasure to watch him parade his countless skills. Such poise and elegance.
Maradona agreed after the game: 'Football wouldn't be beautiful without seeing Messi touch the football.' His natural heir is warming up nicely.
How they lined up: Romero, Demichelis, Heinze, Samuel, Di Maria (Burdisso, 85), Veron (Maxi, 74), Mascherano (Captain), Gutierrez (Yellow card), Higuain (Milito, 79), Messi, Tevez