sâmbătă, 30 iunie 2018

Last round

Wanna catch a flight together?
So we've been going at a speed of four games per day this past week and it's proved a lot for me to keep up with seeing them, never mind writing about them. But I will do a quick round-up together with my predictions for the last 16 round, as the most important reader of this blog is none of the 50 or so viewers, at least half of which I suspect are bots looking for keywords, but myself in 4 years' time. No disrespect to anyone, and I'm really grateful you're reading this, but come on, we both know there's better coverage out there. What we won't know, come Qatar 2022, is how I was feeling about these games 4 years ago.

Group A: Whatever Russia does, it feels dodgy. After playing amazing against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, they were totally outclassed by an Uruguay that was rather unconvincing against those same opponents. Saving money on the refs? Drugs ran out? No idea, but a 3-0 scoreline is not in line with what we've seen in the first two games. This is the kind of shit a computer would red-flag. Anyway, not much difference whether you play against Spain or Portugal in the next round, so there you go. In other news, the brilliant Mo Salah goes home without a point and beaten by a very poor Saudi team, leaving us to wonder what was Egypt doing at this World Cup in the first place.

Group B: In line with the whole round, Group B has also been, in many ways, a festival of incompetence. You would've thought Iran, needing to beat Portugal to qualify, would really give it a go. Not the case, and they were as lucky as their opponents were incompetent for getting a draw. Penaldo missing a penalty and Quaresma... did you know Quaresma is still playing? I would've thought he retired sometime at the beginning of the decade. Meanwhile Spain needed a last-minute equalizer against mighty Morocco. But hey-ho, last time they had such trouble with Morocco they wrote El Cid, so maybe some good literature will come out of it.

Group C: Oh, God, Australia! Beat Peru and hope for a favor from France,  this is how you do it! I was hoping there's more fight in the Aussies, there usually is, but when you're 2-0 down and your only idea is to bring 38yo Cahill in, you probably don't deserve to go through. Neither did Denmark, but France chose the path of 'just enough' to go through this otherwise very poor group.

Group D: How spectacular would've been for Argentina to go home! And out of the many ways in which to achieve this, exactly 0 materialized. Croatia minded their football, and Iceland's bravery was only enough for the first game, as their last two came to nothing, while the Super Eagles crashed in front of a rather lucky shot from Rojo. I'm really happy for Rojo, but I don't think Argentina deserved to go through after a meek display against Iceland and presenting the Croatian tornado with the strength of a damp cloth. Croatia to win the World Cup? They seem cocky enough.

Group E: Beating Brazil is always a tough call, but I feel like the Serbs got a bit too scared of the reputation more than anything else. Specially with this Brazilian team, that's got more flair than substance. Neymar is always up for a trick, but hardly ever in a mood to help the team. Could someone maybe tell him that the other 10 dudes in similar shirts are there to work with him? Serbia had a few good chances, but you are playing Brazil, and you do need a win, so it's gotta be the match of your life. This did not feel like the match of their lives, as convenient as excuse losing to Brazil might be. Switzerland goes through thanks to a lucky Shaqiri shot against Serbia and a half of anti-football against Brazil after the Zuber header. 

Group F: Oh, wow! Talk about the festival of incompetence! No idea what happened to Germany, but more than that, whatever happened to Mexico? Only saw Germany's first half against South Korea and none of the Sweden-Mexico game, but it feels like the results have been swapped somehow. So now we know: the Germans don't always win and certainly they won't win this tournament.

Group G: Hyped as a race to the bottom, in which allegedly both Belgium and England wanted to lose just so they won't play Brazil sometime in the tournament. Well, if you wanna win the goddamn thing you're gonna have to either play Brazil or some dudes that beat them. So that's irrelevant for everyone but the English media. Never mind how disrespectful to the game is starting a match you're not trying to win - why bother showing up then? As for cold calculations... would you rather play Colombia or Japan?

Group H: This was always bound to be an interesting, but the poor Polish display as well as Japan's miraculous win against Columbia made it unpredictable too. Hard to say who was the more deserving to qualify, harder still to say who should've won. Japan's display of 'whatever, we've got less yellow cards' was dreadful and earned them no sympathy from the neutrals, while Senegal's loss, what with the penalty cancelled (correctly) because of VAR and all, made me sad as it sealed a knock-out round without any African team, first time since 1982. Pele's prediction of an African team winning it by 2010 looks awkwardly out of place now, what with new colonialism attracting all African talent towards European teams. Yes, Boateng, including you.

Spectacular and unpredictable so far, this World Cup, highly enjoyable in unexpected ways, though lacking sometimes in that sort of willpower that makes up for lack of skill. See Costa Rica 2014, Ghana 2010, Turkey 2002 and so on. And because I got 11 out of the last 16 teams right, I'll try my hand at the quarter-finals predictions:

France - Argentina: Clear call for France. Argentina's been poor, while the French seem to still have the breaks on. About time they come off, the confidence and the skill are there.

Uruguay - Portugal: One of the toughest. I'll say Uruguay because, if nothing else, Portugal couldn't beat Iran while Los Celestes might be led by a guy needing help walking, but they can call on all 44 limbs on the pitch.

Spain - Russia: Hosts going through would not surprise me in the least. Tough one, but I'll risk a few quids on the underdodgies here. Sorry, I meant underdogs.

Croatia - Denmark: Not only do I think Croatia will fly through, I hope they'll smash Denmark to pieces. No sympathy for the Danes, as they deserved maybe one of the 5 points they got in the group stage.

Brazil - Mexico: Uhh... I'm feeling it for the underdogs, looks like. I mean, it's hard, but wouldn't it be nice?

Belgium - Japan: Yeah, they'll run around you, try to get into space, but so do mosquitoes. And Lukaku ain't having any of that mosquito shit.

Sweden - Switzerland: Swoosh! Whoever wins will wonder how they got thus far, specially with England lying in wait. I'm going for the Swiss, they actually have footballers in their team.

Colombia - England: Just joking, El Tigre is in need of a new contract, looks like. Bet you'll regret that weakened side against Belgium after you'll lose this one, eh, Gareth?

luni, 25 iunie 2018

El tigre esta vivo

England - Panama 6-1 (Stones '8 '40, Kane pen '22 pen '45 '62, Lingard '36 - Baloy '78)
Japan - Senegal 2-2 (Inui '34, Honda '78 - Mane '11, Wague '71)
Poland  - Columbia 0-3 (Mina '40, Falcao'70, Cuadrado '75)

You wouldn't believe it going by the reputation, but I sometimes find it incredible how moody this country is. The victory against Panama yesterday was nothing short of a national celebration, with flags on display on cars and balconies, people smiling and cheering everywhere and England shirts proudly brandished across the land. Brexit? Pound dropping? The March on Westminster the day before? Pressure on the NHS? Fuck all that, we beat Panama! After the likely defeat against Belgium the regular program will resume. In truth, England did look like they were enjoying themselves and, poor quality opposition aside, they might really feel able to contend this year. Maybe because it looks more like a team and less like a collection of egos? Happy for Jesse, his goal will certainly be a 'goal of the tournament' contender, happy for Panama who did manage to get their first goal in the World Cup and, with a bit of luck, they might even get a point against Tunisia, if they manage to come up with something other than 'push everyone to the ground' as defensive tactics.

Group H is the most exciting of the World Cup, with Japan the big surprise. Senegal played better than against Poland, I thought, and they did seem to be the superior side, but not by a large enough margin as to win the game. Only saw the highlight of what looked to be a very good and disputed game, but the draw means that Japan, not Senegal, is now the favorite to qualify.

Because yes, I don't think Senegal will beat Columbia, specially after the good display the South Americans put in to batter Poland to pieces. Very disappointing performance from what's supposed to be something of a golden generation for Poland. Non-existent against Columbia, while a team boasting Jamie Rodriguez, Cuadrado and Falcao in their attacking line-up ran riot and might as well win the group despite losing the first game. Doesn't make much difference, the choice is between Belgium and England in the knock-out round, they only need to beat Senegal. Which is likely, but not easy. Let's see which Falcao turns up.

VAR Politics

Belgium - Tunisia 5-2 (Hazard pen '6 '51, Lukaku '16 '45, Batshuayi '90 - Bronn '18, Khazri '90+3)
South Korea - Mexico 1-2 (Son '90 - Vela pen '26, Hernandez '66)
Germany - Sweden 2-1 (Reus '48, Kroos '90 - Toivonen '32)

Look, we need to talk about these penalties. I've said before, there will still be errors as long as the human factor is involved and I don't really envision a game without a central referee, so I don't think there'll ever be a way that the game is completely error-free. But the truth of the matter is there seem to be LESS errors with VAR than without. This is a common and baffling oversight whenever it comes to computer and automation in any area: computers don't have to be perfect and can't be perfect; they just need to be better than humans at the particular job they're meant for, and more often than not they are. Yet we do insist to holding technology responsible for these absurdly high standards while we go on with our deeply flawed processes; this is not reason, it's just resistance to change.

I think VAR is good and it has been beneficial for this tournament; I think it will be used more and more and it will become the norm in the not too far future, but I also think it will change the game in ways we can't yet know. The first effect of VAR - penalties. There's a lot more of them around than have ever been in a World Cup. Good or bad? Well, if it's an infraction the appropriate penalty should be handed out. BUT! While running a red light is an offence, there's a difference between running a red light on an empty street at 2am and racing past a red light through a crowded junction at rush hour. Same goes for penalties and I know this might sound absurd now, but hear me out here: how about we change the rules so we have different value penalties? Like, penalties that are worth half a goal or something?

Because, come on! There's a difference between when a striker is clear on goal and is tackled and brought down from behind and when a defender can't pull his hand back on time. I believe both penalties yesterday are debatable: the foul on Hazard was clearly outside the box. I'm surprised the ref didn't want to use VAR for it and was so categorical about the penalty - I didn't think it was. Which is a shame, because Belgium would've won anyway, but with that penalty after 5 minutes their job was made too easy and while we still got to see a very entertaining football game, the scoreline might be a little unfair to Tunisia. The Mexican penalty was an obvious one, but still harsh on the poor South Korean defender, whose intention about touching the ball with his hand is debatable at most. I think no penalty for Sweden against Germany and I also think no penalty for Neymar when he fell in the box against Costa Rica. Same reason: there's enough contact to stop the attacker getting to the ball, but not enough contact to take him down. A player is allowed to use his body to obstruct an opponent from getting to the ball.

'It really is 24 inches long'
I'm very glad Lukaku scored another brace, putting him level with Ronaldo on 4 for the tournament now. This spells trouble for Iran, because the only team talk Fernando Santos needs now is to go to Ronaldo and whisper in his ear: 'Lukaku has as many goals as you do'. Very entertaining game, the Belgium one, albeit a bit harsh on the poor Tunisians. Always caught on the wrong foot in defence and thoroughly incapable of containing the Belgian threat. It was, however, funny to see Batshuayi struggle to score so much, and that chot over the bar from 6 yards will be replayed in bloopers compilations many years on now. Great to see Tunisia scored twice too, giving the game some semblance of competition, and also great to see Fellaini on the pitch for a bit. And superb scenes after the game with Lukaku consoling the poor Khazri. There's grace in winning, grace in losing, and class to have them on display.

South Korea was never going to trouble Mexico, but they gave it a go. As I said above, unlucky with the penalty, but it would have gone in sooner or later anyway. I think Chicharito got it wrong for his goal though: perfect opportunity for a one touch shot, risky to do the dribbling. He was lucky it worked out on this occasion, but it gave the defender an extra chance. The Koreans gave it their all but couldn't get near Mexico, which has been so far one of the best teams in the tournament. Moon tried a cheeky back-heel, which takes guts when you're on the brink of elimination from the World Cup, and Son missed a good chance before finally scoring to save face for his team. But that was it. Enjoy the game against Germany, try not to be completely humiliated, then go home.

The top billing in the group was worthy of the headline. Not sure what's happening to the Germans, but they're not feeling well. Sweden was poor in the first game and was nothing to write home about yesterday. Yet they troubled Loew and his boys beyond what was normal, scoring first, dominating the first half and having a claim to a penalty that, as mentioned earlier, I don't think it was. It took half time and the introduction of Mario Gomez to change anything. Granted, Gomez changed the dynamics of the game and made the equalizing goal within 3 minutes. From here on, Sweden knew what to expect, even if they didn't want to admit it. Credit to them, they held on up until almost the very end, and a draw would have put Germany in a spot of bother. But look at Toni Kroos' strike again: he saw the angle, he knew he needed and extra yard or so, he put the ball exactly where he wanted it then... that was not a shot, that was an execution. Great players show themselves in moments like this, but even so, to be so calm and so self-assured with so much hanging in the balance - it's almost otherworldly. That's why I wouldn't even think Kroos' goal have a shot for the goal of the tournament - the man did it with such cool composed calm that he looked like he was in training. That goal can only be appreciated when put in context.

Now, much as I feel sorry for Larsson and Zlatan, I'm glad Germany, and not Sweden, will qualify from the group. The Swedes are simply undeserving. They will not beat Mexico, and Germany sure as hell will not lose to South Korea. But as it stands we're looking at a Brazil - Germany game in the last 16, and that's going to be really interesting.

sâmbătă, 23 iunie 2018

Plot twists

Brazil - Costa Rica 2-0 (Coutinho '90, Neymar '90)
Nigeria - Iceland 2-0 (Musa '49 '75)
Serbia - Switzerland 1-2 (Mitrovic '5 - Xhaka '52, Shakiri '90)

Oh no, Iceland! The result today is discouraging for the smallest nation in the competition. They only needed to ride out this game without losing and they were in prime position to go through. Now everyone will be fancying their chances and despite Iceland having apparently the toughest game in the group, Croatia is as good as qualified. That doesn't necessary mean they'll step aside, but there's no hiding for Iceland: you have to go for a win. I haven't watched any of the game against Nigeria yet, but though I am looking forward to it. I imagine Iceland set out to defend for dear life and the Nigerian goals were individual achievements. Truth is, you can draw Argentina all you want, but there does come a time when you have to go after the game, when you have to attack and try and score goals. Despite their enthusiasm, Iceland might not be best equipped to do this.

Same goes for Costa Rica. They were just as poor as in the first game, setting up to keep bodies behind the ball at all times. Didn't work against Serbia and it wasn't going to work against Brazil. Well, it almost did. But almost is the key word here, with the pressure always intensifying as time runs out. It's not really an accident Brazil did score in the end, more often than not it happens. And the fact that they scored two goals in quick succession shows the fury and the pace at which they were attacking. Yes, Costa Rica did have the best chance of the first half, when Ruiz stretched Becker, but even a one goal advantage can be overturned if all you do afterwards is defend.

Neymar is right to be frustrated, he was fouled all over the place, but the ref was right not to grant a penalty when the two Costa Rican defenders ambushed him in the box in the 78th minute. There was contact, yes, even enough contact to cause him to fall, but it did look like the defender set his body to stop Neymar from advancing rather than to try and take him down. 

All's well that ends well, however, and Brazil are now in a good position to qualify. They still have to beat Serbia to win the group, and that's not going to be easy, but by the same token I have the feeling the Serbs won't go for the defensive outfit.

They did drop the ball massively today though. Scored after 4 minutes, brilliant textbook goal, completely in control of the first half, they must've spent half-time wondering who they'll meet in the knock-outs. Might as well be the flight attendants now, because sometimes football can be cruel like that. In the second half different teams came out of the dressing rooms, and the Swiss were all over the place, pushing and pushing. Xhaka's brilliant volley leveled the things up shortly after the interval and, heart-breaking as it might be to get a goal right at the death, it is the punishment for not planning contingency. It's a sticky one for the Serbs now, as they'll have to beat a Brazilian team in need of points to be sure of qualifying. They'll be heroes if they do, and it will be interesting to see if Brazil will be holding out for a draw that will see them through. The Swiss are now favorites to win the group, but we're in for a very interesting last round here.

vineri, 22 iunie 2018

The call of the Andes

Denmark - Australia 1-1 (Eriksen '7 - Jedinak pen '38)
France - Peru 1-0 (Mbappe '34)
Argentina Croatia 0-3 (Rebic '53, Modric '80, Rakitic '90)

Denmark is the perfect example of how one can qualify from a group without deserving it the least bit. To sit under the cover of that one second of inspiration from Eriksen and be thoroughly dominated by Australia is almost cheating. To not show any sort of determination of will to play anything resembling football is an insult to everyone watching and I hope the Danes will be ashamed of themselves, because that was appalling. With the point against Australia they are now in a more comfortable position than they ever deserved and it is a great, great shame the Aussies didn't manage to snatch the victory in the end, a victory they would have fully deserved and they worked for way more than their opponents.

Now, was that a penalty? I'm inclined to say yes, though I will admit an argument to the contrary can be made. Fact of the matter is, the rules of the game are not clear at all in regards to 'intention to touch the ball' and 'natural position of the hand'. My rule of thumb is, if the hand is away from the body, you're always in danger of conceding a handball, and players must surely know this. No idea what Poulsen intended, but sure as hell he didn't regret hitting the ball with his hand. Or wouldn't have, should the penalty not have been awarded. Poulsen is a good player and his goal against Peru might just see Denmark through, but he is also responsible for penalties in both their games so far. That is an indication of immaturity in the game, and my good opinion of him after watching only the second half against Peru has toned down a lot by now. 

Australia might fare a lot better if Jedinak would at least try and smile every now and then. Too tense, mate, too tense. Beating Peru is still a big ask, even with the South Americans out of the competition, but I hope they can pull it off while Denmark gets a battering from France. I really, really feel for the Blanquirrojas, they deserved to qualify and it would be a real shame for their supporters to go home without a point, even though in this instance is for the greater good.

But that missed penalty proved their undoing and, unfortunate as it might be that your fate as a team hinges on such a brief moment, it's been known to happen and the Peruvian players along with the whole country that provided them a huge support so far are now learning a painful lesson about the cold-blooded pragmatism needed to go forward in a World Cup.

To be fair, they never looked like beating France, but they gave a good account of themselves. The French, meanwhile, won their first two games and are poised to win the group. Small margins, but there's something to be said about preservation of energy as well when you knew Argentina might lie in wait in the first knock-out round.

Now, about that...
One of only two players to have missed a penalty in this World Cup so far has to beat Nigeria and hope for the best from the other games to see quarter-final football. Of course, he can't do it by himself. He can't seem to do anything by himself, save for maybe sabotage the tactics of his entire team by always asking for the ball, then losing it. Truth to be said, the Croatians didn't give him too many chances to see the ball, so he lost a lot less than against Iceland.

Delightful, absolutely delightful the way Croatia just brushed past Argentina. Modric and co look a very strong proposition, and won't say no to repeating the semi-final worthy performance of 1998 when they eliminated Romania in the last 16, the bastards. Just as long as they don't meet France in the first knock-out game, though it will take some huge upsets for that to happen at this stage.

Both Croatia and Argentina showed a very strong, manly, almost brutal football at times, but it was all pleasant to the eye, it showed they're really going for it and not there just for a trip on the Federation's expense, like the Danes. The lesson to be learned for Argentina is be more disciplined and don't make silly errors, Caballero! And for the love of God, drop Messi from the team.

joi, 21 iunie 2018

Just enough

Uruguay - Saudi Arabia 1-0 (Suarez '23)
Portugal - Morocco 1-0 (Ronaldo '4)
Iran - Spain 0-1 (Costa '54)

Business as usual in the seventh day of the World Cup, with all the favorites winning their games by the single goal, and with situations in the groups starting to become clear, so that Group A, for instance, doesn't even need the last game, what with Russia and Uruguay - already qualified - playing each other, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia bowing out regardless of the outcome of their game. One might wonder, with Egypt likely to win that game, just how important will be for Salah's team to go home with a win, even if that win will only count for statistics. My reckoning - not very.

Suarez broke the ice for this tournament with a very opportunistic goal which reminded me of van Nistelrooy. Now, despite him being a dick on a number of occasion and despite him playing for Liverpool and Barcelona, I am rather ambivalent towards Suarez. First off, he was unfairly demonized when he punched his way towards the headlines in the QF against Ghana in 2010. Many commentators saw his last resort handball in 90th minute as cheating, I saw it as taking one for the team, and show me the footballer who wouldn't have done the same to put his country in a WC semifinal. His numbers for Ajax were also impressive, what with those amazing 35 goals in 33 games in the 2009/10 season of Eredivisie. But then of course I don't condone cannibalism, specially when it's a repeat offense, nor do I condone playing for Liverpool or Barcelona. I do like Uruguay so much, however, that I can even cheer for Suarez when he scores for his country. 

The same cannot be said about Diego Costa. Once a prick, always a prick, and he proved it once again by over-celebrating a goal to which he had a rather small contribution against Iran. After riding their luck for the whole game against Morocco, which they won despite being second best, the Persians were given a taste of their own medicine, a very worthy performance against Spain coming to nowt. I do like Iran, mostly for Carlos Queiroz, and deep down I hope they can pull a miracle against Portugal and go through. It's a tall order though, as Portugal looks like the best team in the group and Ronaldo is in the mood for football, no doubt eyeing the golden boot of the tournament at the very least.

The primadonna of Funchal scored a great goal, his fourth of the tournament, to put the game against Morocco to bed early. The Maghrebians seemed to have decent spells in the game, but unlike in their first game, the 90 minutes against Portugal were a struggle that the Moroccans, however much sympathy I might have for them, were ill prepared for. They never looked like getting anything out of the game despite their numerous calls for non existent penalties. 

Group B might still be an interesting one if Iran pulls the aforementioned miracle. That would send Portugal home, which is both unlikely and unfair, as if there is a team that doesn't deserve to qualify, that is Spain. The former world champions, despite bringing another superstar team to the World Cup seem to have reverted to their pre-2010 state of also-rans. Their are not playing to their players' potential and it's only the sense of entitlement and a few lucky streaks from individual players (mostly Costa and Isco) that qualified them after two games in which they only won one and deserved neither. I would prefer them being pitted out against Russia rather than Uruguay, as luck - natural or man-made* - is more likely to even out there.

* by 'man' I mean FIFA. I know I said I'm taking a shine to Russia, but that doesn't mean I'm forgetting who we're talking about.

miercuri, 20 iunie 2018

Polska nie walczy

Columbia - Japan 1-2 (Quintero '39 - Kagawa pen '6, Osako '73)
Poland Senegal 1-2  (Krychowiak '86 - Cionek og '37, Niang '60)
Russia - Egypt 3-1 (Fathi og '47, Cheryshev '59, Dzyuba '62 - Salah pen '73)

Oh wow, who saw that coming? With the underdogs winning in both games, Group H is turning out to be one of the most interesting ones.

Columbia was really unlucky to start the game with a huge handicap, being one goal and one man down after 4 minutes. I find it hard to blame poor Sanchez, his hand did stop a goal, though in hindsight his team would have been better off one goal down but playing 11 v 11. Even with 10 men, Columbia did great and was the better team, which makes it really unfair for them to have lost. But they do seem to be the best team in the group, and there's still time to make amends. Japan rode their luck a little bit and that never holds too long, so even with the win I don't really see them qualifying.

Poland was really poor and a real disappointment. Boasting the best generation in 40 years and some of the big stars in Europe, the Poles were unable to control the game or create any chances of note until it was too late. The second Senegalese goal was a very weird one, and should not have counted, what with Niang being off the pitch with the ball still in play. The fourth ref should have kept him on the side until the ball was out of play, though even so, Poland has very little reason to complain. There is of course a difference between a point and no points, but sometimes you have to put in the work to get anything from the game. Senegal was the most practical team and they deserved to win, though the manner it happen is indeed a shame. But the odd blunder is always meant to happen at the World Cup, and good teams shouldn't let that stop them. Hell, even England didn't let a few refereeing mistakes stop them! You want to prove your worth, Poland? Just beat Colombia.

Right, so a week ago I was very vocal against what I thought would be the Russian methods. But actually, an hour into their second game, Cherchesov's boys flipped a switch within me. Russia has actually played good football. They were by far the better team against Egypt, and they are worthy of the praise heaped upon them. They still have the toughest game in the group coming up, against Uruguay but, if Los Celestes beat the Saudis today, as they're expected to, both teams will be happy to squeeze out a boring uncomplicated draw in the last game. Or Russia could win for their public, you won't hear the Uruguayans complaining. They'll get either Spain or Portugal, so it's really not that big a difference between finishing first or second in Group A.

And with the first round of games gone, it's time to reassess my predictions from before the start of the tournament:

- got Group A bang on in terms of outcome, not really in terms of style though. Still, yes on Group A;

- yeah, easy one. Bar a huge blunder from Spain against Iran, it'll be Spain and Portugal, doesn't matter in which order;

- funnily enough, got Group C right too, although I take back the praise for Denmark. They were lucky to have won against Peru and if they go through it will be undeserved;

- everyone is still discounting Iceland, and I was hoping Nigeria would put on some sort of display. But now everything's still in the air in that group. Nigeria will probably go home, but they still have potential to cause trouble to the other teams. Croatia was actually really lucky to have played the first game against them. They'll be warned about Iceland now;

- my hopes for Costa Rica have come to naught. I'm saying Brazil and Serbia now, even after the Swiss' miraculous getaway with a point from Neymar & co;

- not as straightforward as I though in Group F, but it's still Germany and Mexico. In reverse order;

- bang on about Belgium and England, but it's an easy one, really;

- ha! Group H. Tricky, isn't it? I'm calling it for Columbia and Senegal.

marți, 19 iunie 2018

The Euros

Sweden - South Korea 1-0 (Granqvist pen '65)
Belgium - Panama 3-0 (Mertens '47, Lukaku '69 '75)
Tunisia - England 1-2 (Sassi pen '35 - Kane '11 '90)

A day of clunky football in the World Cup, but for better or worse Europe came out triumphant against representatives from almost all the other continents.

Sweden opened the day's proceedings in a game that lived down to its non-glamorous billing. South Korea is a team that's more often than not present at the World Cup, but they were never capable of any notable performances bar the outrageous referee-propelled trajectory on home soil in 2002. Bar a miracle, they will hold a firm grip on the last place in the group. Sweden was by far the better team of the game, but didn't look good enough to scare either Mexico or Germany, so I think they'll struggle. They've got the defending champions next, and it would be kinda funny to send them home, but anything less than victory against the Germans spells a plane to Stockholm. They deserved to win today, though the manner in which they did it was far from spectacular. Deserved penalty, yes, and luckily VAR managed to turn the referee, but they should really have scored more by the look of the game. They seem to be missing a poacher, a genuine front-of-goal striker. No Zlatan no party.

Belgium played just one half against inferior opposition. Weirdly enough, the second. The Belgian team looks good, they connect well, their game flows fast and free and their front line - that includes Hazard, de Bruyne and Lukaku - spells danger for anyone. Panama held their own for half of the game but they don't have the quality to resist a serious football team. Happy for the two Lukaku goals, though on the other hand it's a bit of a shame the goal came so quickly, it would have been fun to watch the likes of Hazard and de Bruyne increasing the fury of their attacks in proportion with the time passed from the game. As it was, the Red Devils had an easy day at the office.

Which does not bear true for England, who had to sweat their victory out of Tunisia. Persistence paid off, what with Harry Kane scoring in injury time, and I'm glad Sterling and Walker brought their piss-poor performances on the world stage. How Sterling gets picked ahead of Rashford is unfathomable.

VAR got a moment in the sun again, with the twitter-sphere furious about Kane not being awarded a penalty. He should have been awarded two, actually, but the trouble with VAR is that it will always be imperfect as long as a human decision is still involved. For better or worse, the result was a fair one, even if England were made to sweat for it a bit more than they were expecting.

It says Harry Kane deserved a penalty
I am sorry for the young Tunisian keeper Mouez Hassen, he did great in the quarter of an hour he was on the pitch, and I'm hoping he can be ready for the next game. Apparently he's got a bit of a habit of faking an injury to get an Iftar break for the team. I believe this is a matter that should be addressed by the Arab nations, as it doesn't seem fair for their players to be at such a huge disadvantage for the month of Ramadan. Far as I know, Islam is quite flexible in regards to the daily prayer and makes provisions for people who cannot respect the prayer time for objective reasons. To my knowledge, provisions are also made for Muslims to eat during the day over Ramadan as long as there are sound health reasons for it. Surely the pride of the Islamic world is grounds enough?

Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship. (Surah Al-Baqarah (2), verse 185)

duminică, 17 iunie 2018


Costa Rica - Serbia 0-1 (Kolarov '56)
Germany - Mexico 0-1 (Lozano '35)
Brazil - Switzerland 1-1 (Coutinho '20 - Zuber '50)

With only 4 goals in 3 games, one could be thinking there wasn't much to see in the World Cup today, but one would then miss what I think was the most exciting day so far.

Costa Rica - Serbia was almost a straightforward win for the Serbs, but Costa Rica is known to spring up a few surprises. This is a poor Costa Rican side, however, despite incorporating players with higher profiles than they've ever had. I thought Serbia controlled the game pretty much beginning to end. It started out as balanced, but the Serbs got the initiative and the majority of chances quickly, and despite being goalless at half time they were always looking the likelier to score. Eventually they did via a brilliant free-kick by Aleksandar Kolarov, 10 minutes after the break. Costa Rica proved unable to switch modes from defense to attack even after the introduction of Arsenal's bench-warmer Joel Campbell. Trouble is, the Serbs also became a lot more economical with their game after the goal and even if they still looked the better team and closer to 2-0 than their opponents were to a draw, the game ended with just the one goal that sets the group to rights. 

In group F, regardless of how big of a surprise is Germany losing to Mexico, few things will change, as Loew's boys will win the other two games. But the manner in which the Mexicans won and their approach to the game are admirable. No regards for the name of the opponent, keep calm and do your regular game. Helped by a poor positioning of the German squad, who left a huge gap in front of the central defenders, Mexico was also the team who looked likelier to score for 2-0 and I think Chicharito was denied a penalty when Boateng crushed into him in the box. It was spectacular to see the Germans furiously attacking Ochoa's goal, specially in the last 20 minutes, only to be met with a calm and composed team that was always ready to throw a ball forward where the Chicharito and Miguel Layun were ready to prey on the lonely central defenders. Loew will have learned his lessons from this game, but now Mexico seem to have the first chance of winning the group.

And if so far we've had more penalties than we probably should, today we saw teams being denied a few. Chicharito and the Mexican squad aren't gonna lose too much sleep over theirs, but there's a chance Brazil will come to regret not being granted what I thought was a clear-cut penalty on Gabriel Jesus with the score at 1-1. I have to say, Brazil looked pretty goodand yes, drawing Switzerland is a huge surprise, but just like Germany, they'll still go through their group. This result only complicates things for Serbia, who will have to make sure they beat Switzerland now to qualify. There's the option of a draw and then hoping you'll get something from Brazil while at the same time waiting for Costa Rica to show up against the Swiss, but who would bet on those odds?

Credit to Switzerland, they were brilliant today. Utterly dominated, but that was always going to be the case against Brazil. They conceded an undefendable goal, but for all the rest of Brazilian chances the keeper stood firm, even when he was betrayed by his defense, as was the case for both Thiago Silva and Neymar's headers, respectively. 

So not only is this World Cup not boring, it might just be one of the most exciting yet, with Brazil, Germany and Argentina all dropping points in their first games.

Don't cry for me Argentina

France - Australia 2-1 (Griezmann pen '58, Behich og '81 - Jedinak pen '62)
Argentina - Iceland 1-1 (Aguero '19 - Finnbogason '23)
Peru - Denmark 0-1 (Poulsen '59)
Croatia - Nigeria 2-0 (Etebo og '23, Modric pen '71)

I've seen a lot less than I would've like from the 8 hours of football yesterday, but there's been some great moments in there, so I'm hoping to recover between the games today. I haven't, for instance, seen any of the France-Australia game bar Griezmann's penalty. Which was not a penalty in my opinion, just as Ronaldo's against Spain was not, despite what VAR might say. Contact, yes, but there's hundreds of contacts in the box throughout a game. And I think, if more and more penalties are being given as VAR is relied on more and more, the face of the game might very well change, which could be this World Cup's legacy, just as the marking foam was the legacy of the 2014 World Cup: defenders are going to be more and more weary of touching forwards in the box, meaning it will be harder to get in the box; defensive lines are going to be stretched along the 18 yards line, which means midfielders will have to be pulled back resulting in a more defensive game; most goals will then be scored from penalties and long range shots and, hopefully, skill will start to matter again, as taking out a man from a defensive system will be an increasingly valuable asset. This is is all yet to be seen, of course, but so far I tend to be rather disappointed with the VAR technology, as no matter how many cameras you put on a field, it is still the refs in front of the screen who make the decision. No chance of error with goal-line technology, for instance, where the computer is the sole decider.

In regards to the result of the game, I'm glad it wasn't a straightforward one. Australia will never become a football powerhouse, but their teams have always shown great dedication to the game, they're hard-working and pleasant to watch. Maybe an infusion of European immigrants will take them to the next level?

Denmark beating Peru however, makes life very difficult for the Socceroos. I only caught the second half of the game, but from what I've seen the profiles of the two teams couldn't be more different: Peru has no big names in the team bar maybe Farfan, but they do seem to have the South American flair in their game; they play attacking football and the ball flows nicely forward, with some very good skills on display. I was impressed with Andre Carillo, and if he keeps this level up he might strike the fancy of bigger teams than Leeds, whose fans seem to have eyed him already

Denmark on the other hand is the better team on paper and the team sheet is peppered with some big names, but the football they've shown is ugly and highly pragmatic: defend and wait for the error or the individual piece of skill. They were lucky yesterday, as the piece of skill did eventually come in the shape of a calmly executed shot from RB Leipzig's forward Yurary Poulsen, arguably the best Danish player. Seeing the name Schmeichel in the Danish goal brings back some very sweet memories, some going back to one of the first football games I remember clearly, the 3-0 hammering of Romania by Denmark in Copenhagen in 1989, when the other Schmeichel was unbeatable. Gone are the days of the original Schmeichels, Poulsens and Laudrup brothers though, and unlikely as it was for Denmark to be crowned European champions in 1992, it is unlikelier still for this generation of Danish footballers to come anywhere near those achievements. 

It is just the naivety of the South Americans that lost them the game, and potentially the qualification. The remaining two games will be very difficult, yes, including the one against Australia, so Denmark is now in pole position to qualify alongside France. Which is a shame, as it seems they'll be getting away with it, what with the lucky win yesterday and them playing France in the last game of the group, as Les Bleus have a habit of dropping points when they no longer need them. I'd love for the Socceroos to beat Denmark, but I don't really see it happening.

Has two left feet.
Can still kick better than Messi with the right foot.
The only whole game I've seen yesterday was the most delightful one: Argentina - Iceland. The smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup is still an unknown quantity: was their great Euro performance two years ago a fluke, or there's more in store from the Vikings? Looks like the latter judging by their performance against a star-studded team that many people see in with a chance to win the competition. The quality within Argentinian ranks is undeniable and their attacking prowess is scary, though not for Icelanders, apparently. Of course Hallgrimsson's boys took to the field with the intention of holding out for a draw, but they did manage to snatch a goal immediately after Aguero's wonder opener and their game plan seemed to actually work better than the Argentinian's, what with Caballero being forced to a few difficult saves. Confronted with this unexpected sturdy resistance, Argentina resorted to a game plan that is as misguided as it's inefficient: give the ball to Messi. And, just like the goat displayed obsessively in the 2D screens around the pitch, Messi seemed to only have legs on one side. Heap all the praise you want on him, he can't shoot with his right foot to save his life. Or the three points, in this case. Yeah, yeah, you can show me YouTube compilations all you want, Sigurdsson and Arnason weren't impressed.

Not only did Iceland do a wonderful job at annihilating Messi, and thus the Argentinian threat, they always looked dangerous when counter-attacking. yeah, point me to the statistics, possession and number of passes, I'll point you to the score. And frankly, if this is the whole Argentinian game plan, I even fancy Nigeria getting something against them.

And boy, have Nigeria been poor or what? In theory at least, their game against Croatia should have been fairly evenly balanced. But Croatia controlled it start to finish and didn't even need to do much to win it quite categorically. Croatia has a better team than I expected, but against Nigeria they failed to produce too much quality football. And if even that is enough to win the game in such a firm manner, I fear the Super Eagles' plane is starting to warm up its engines.

Iceland to win the world cup? 500/1 with William Hill, thus making it 16 times more likely than Leicester was to win the Premier League in 2016.

sâmbătă, 16 iunie 2018

That boy Ronaldo

Egypt - Uruguay 0-1 (Gimenez '89)
Morocco - Iran 0-1 (Bouhadduz og '90)
Portugal Spain 3-3 (Ronaldo pen '4 '44 '88 - Diego Costa '24 '55, Fernandez '58)

Luckily enough we didn't have to wait too long to see good football, despite the first game of the day throwing that promise into long grass, so to speak. A lot of people speak highly of Uruguay and, while I do believe they have the potential to come out of the group (meaning, they are better than both Egypt and Saudi Arabia), they're going to struggle after. And I think Oscar Tavarez knows this, and by the look of the game today I think he's still working on the team and playing the waiting game.

Today the team looked extremely disjointed, with a very good defensive line and a scary attack (Cavani and Suarez), but not much in-between, bar Diego Godin's angry pushes forward. The frst half was surprisingly balanced and Egypt looked like they might just do the business even without Mo Salah. Second half told a different story, with the South Americans getting more and more courageous as time wore on. In the last 20 minutes or so we could clearly see the wing-backs pushing forward more and more and even though it would've made for a more interesting group, it would have been a shame for Uruguay not to win. I'm glad Suarez missed a sitter because, although I'm very sympathetic to Uruguay, I don't hold much love for Suarez. Cavani's shot in the side post was absolutely spectacular and would've probably made for a better game should it have gone it. It's nice, in a way, that a defender scored, because it goes to show that a team is more than its stars and that all 11 people in the team have to get involved at both ends of the pitch.

Somewhat surprising the absence of Mo Salah from the team, but even if he would've been present I doubt much would have changed. Cuper might do his best, but there's very little material in the Egyptian team to warrant their presence at the World Cup. At least judging by the display today.


Morocco - Iran is one of the least spectacular fixtures of the tournament and the game confirmed it. I have only seen bits of it, and Morocco seemed to be playing better while Iran didn't really seem to be playing at all. I thought Morocco was going to snatch it in the end, which would have encouraged them to hope for qualification, specially if Portugal - Spain would've provided a loser. As fortunes have it though, it was not to be. Scoring an own goal in the last minute of the game must be a horrible feeling, specially that Bouhadduz wasn't under too much pressure from the attacker. But such a mistake also reveals a lack of experience and a lack of game maturity which can indeed be seen every now and then even at this level of the competition but which spells an early plane ticket. Iran was very poor and unless something changes dramatically, they won't get any more points in this tournament, specially with the Iberian draw meaning group winner will probably be decided on number of goals scored.

Not to worry Dave - you won't have to see this
fucker every day in the dressing room
But beyond the economy of the group, Portugal - Spain should just be enjoyed as a beautiful game of football. I didn't expect it, and I don't have much sympathy for either team (I'm ok with Portugal, were it not for that one betrayal a decade ago), but this is the type of game that makes people fall in love with the sport. Between Penaldo, Barcelona's School of Drama and Injury Feigning and Madrid's Supermodels and Leg-breaking Academy, it's fair to say these are not the most fair-play teams one would encounter, and this has also been abundantly on display today. But there's some skills slipping between the hair gel and referee insults, and that's what we should concentrate on.

Of course it wasn't a penalty on Ronaldo's first goal, he forced the contact and he forced the fall, but the ref had a brief moment of excitement. Sure, would he not have given a penalty, Ronaldo would have given him a lesson in refereeing, as he had tried on all the occasion when the Lusitan primadonna didn't feel like running and would ask for a yellow card for the opponents instead, as was the case for the last goal.

Trouble is, he does know how to hit a ball. Laugh at De Gea all you want, but that shot for the second goal was a hard one to keep out, probably impossible to catch. The spin on the ball for the equalizing free kick was also incredible. As for the penalty, well, they don't call him Penaldo for nothing. 

Spain looked more of a team, though it was everyone's favorite villain who shone. Diego Costa is strong and can bully a defense every day of the week, but he's also quick, skilled, has a great shot and senses the goal like very few others. Both his goals have been great in different ways, though none greater than Fernandez's shot for the third Spanish goal. Spain might feel they've been a bit done-by, penalty and all, and Isco's shot was unlucky not to go in, but again, it's fair for the teams to have shared the points. I doubt either Morocco and even less so Iran can get any point from these two teams, but both will feel motivated to have a go, while Spain and Portugal now will be racing for goal difference, and with Ronaldo already scoring a hat-trick, he'll start thinking about the golden boot and other individual accolades, and hopefully this will keep hi motivated to stay in the games.

Therefore, while the group table if pretty much sorted, chances are we'll see some more good football in Group B.

joi, 14 iunie 2018

Blunt Sword

Russia - Saudi Arabia 5-0 (Gazynski '12, Cheryshev '43 '90, Dzyuba '71, Golovin '90)

I was thinking that yesterday I said we should fight all the wars on a football pitch, while at the same time moaning today's game will be won in an office. And while I'm sure precautions have been taken, if this is all Saudi Arabia can bring to the table then Russia would've won anyway. The emphatic matter in which they did doesn't really count for anything, as the opposition has been incredibly poor and it was far from a dominant performance of the Russians. On the contrary, the Saudi had more possession and better passing accuracy, which goes to show the uselessness of Guardiola's football 'philosophy': possession and passing are useless without attempts, and the Saudis had none on target.

The game started animated enough, with both teams giving it a go in the beginning and with apparently an extra dose of aggressiveness from the Saudis, though their stamina levels dropped fast to the point where they weren't really in the game by the end of it, as shown by the two injury time goals.

But the Russians did get a goal pretty quickly and the crowds on Luzhniki forgot for a second they live under an oppressive dictatorship. One more before half time so the beers go down better, but only the fourth goal, Cheryshev's second, had any real skill contribute to it. Good chip with the outside of the right foot over the Saudi defenders whose main job in this game has been to make up the numbers.

So yeah, it was a bad idea to have the host nation, rather than the defending champions, opening the World Cup. This has provided the very memorable (not!) South Africa - Mexico and Russia - Saudi Arabia so far as games that have to live up to the hype of 4 years' expectations and a huge build-up, and we haven't gotten to the Qatar World Cup yet.

The Russians are now as good as qualified and they'll probably win the group. Egypt-Uruguay tomorrow should be quite revealing in terms of the shape of this group, and by the end of tomorrow we'll probably know who's going to win Group B, too. Oh, yeah, and there's also Morocco - Iran. Eid Mubarak!
Man of the match?

miercuri, 13 iunie 2018

So the World Cup

This is it. 24 hours from now we'd have seen the first game of this World Cup. I expect it to be very poor quality football, as I expect it to be rigged. Hosts Russia have already been assigned to the first seeding pot and have landed in a relatively easy group, so I expect a replay of South Korea's World Cup run in 2002 on a bigger scale. Too mean? FIFA is corrupt, Russia is corrupt and they both have a reputation of cheaters. I'll find it very hard to forgive Russia after the 6-1 against Cameroon in Italy in 1990, a game that was rigged so blatantly obvious, yet a game that has put the otherwise completely unremarkable Oleg Salenko in the history books for scoring the most goals in a World Cup game.

That's right, one of my first world cup memories is Russia cheating, and you're damn right I'll hold a 30 years grudge for that. My very first world cup memory dates from 10 days earlier, the opening game in which the unknown Untamed Lions of Cameroon defeated the defending champions Argentina which included arguably the biggest footballer ever to have walked the earth: Diego Maradona. And I've been writing about the World Cups ever since. On dedicated notebooks for Italy 1990 and USA 1994, in a folder that I doubt still exists about France 1998, on BB forums about Korea & Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 and on this very blog for the last two editions. The novelty this time is that I'll be writing in English, as I have with most of my online presence for the past 5 years or so. Simple reasons: wider reach, and the vast majority of my Romanian speaking audience is literate in English, whereas the opposite is not true about my English-speaking audience/friends/entourage.

It's probably clear by now that the magic of the World Cup is still alive and well inasmuch as I'm concerned. I'm hoping the magic will hold after this edition too and we will be gifted memorable moments despite the build up being under rather poor auspices. And in this series of posts I'll try to capture these moments of magic the way I'll see them and live them. If you're gonna keep reading, expect a lot of subjectivity and supporter bias.

As of yet, I don't have a clear favorite.

  • Brazil are sort of perennial favorites for me and for the world, though I have to say I do not like Neymar. I do not like his football, I am not impressed with his skill, I hate the hype around him and I despise the money used to move him around. 
  • Germany seem to be one of the cleanest candidates and, although I never felt any sort of special connection with Nationalmannschaft, I'd be happy for Low to become the first manager to win two World Cups after Vittorio Pozzo in 1938.
  • I do not support Spain, France, England or, until Messi retires, Argentina and find it disappointing that Italy, Netherlands and USA are not present.
I suppose once I see the first round of games I'll start leaning towards one or a couple of teams. Speaking of, let me take a look at the groups and try some predictions:

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay

I'd love for Russia not to qualify, but I don't expect it. I hope at least they won't win the group. Regardless, I expect them to go through, one way or another. Which means Uruguay will probably get the second qualifying spot. Egypt might have the one season wonder Salah, but he's the one flower that don't make a spring and Misr Pharaos are traditionally bad at world cups. Saudi Arabia has a great history, with the likes of Al-Owairan or Al-Jaber making history in their own right, but the Saudi Falcons might have to sit this one out.

Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

Both Morocco and Iran had their 15 minutes of fame at world cups, but this group seems relatively straightforward. Only question mark hangs around Spain and their silly decision to sack the manager 48 hours before the start of the World Cup. Add this to the abysmal performance they had in Brazil 4 years ago, and the Islamic nations might be vying for blood (no, it's not Islamophobic, I'd love them to). I'd love to see it happening, and I'd love Iran to go through. It always has political consequences when they do well on the pitch.

Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

Much as I'd love the Socceroos, they'll probably go home after three games. Peru will very likely accompany them to the airport, as Denmark seem to have a good generation this time around. Yeah, France will go through, probably qualifying after a bad refereeing decision.

Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

Oh, wow. Assuming Argentina gets a spot, the second will be fiercely contested. Iceland did great two years ago at the Euros, but I'm not sure that says anything about their ability to compete this month. I want Nigeria to go through; sub-Saharan Africa is rather under-represented this year, with just Nigeria and Senegal flying the flag. Ideally it would be Nigeria and Iceland, though it might be a hard ask. And normally I'd be more sympathetic towards Croatia, but their national team seem to be less and less remarkable each year, despite Modric. Besides, the Davor Suker penalty in 1998 in France is hard to forget.

Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

I hope Costa Rica will provide great moments to rival the ones of their magnificent Luis Gabelo Conejo in 1990, or Paul Wanchope taking on Germany single-handedly in the opening game of WC2006, but I doubt they have the strength to qualify. I think and I hope Serbia will go through alongside Brazil. Switzerland have a good enough team, but Serbia is better prepared to deal with the Latin American flair.

Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

Looks like the most straight-forward: Germany and Mexico. Sweden have been gifted with a second sentence every time their name is uttered (Can you imagine this? Sweden!) and a poor-ass Italian team in the play-offs, but this is real life and Zlatan is gone. South Korea? Nice try.

Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England

People are speaking about Belgium as being in with a chance to win it, but those of us who've seen all this before know better: they will fizzle out in front of real opposition. Which they won't get from this group though, so they'll advance alongside England, traditional QF losers.

Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Uhh, this is hard. I have sympathy for each and every team here, but for different reasons. I like the fact that Poland has a generation good enough to matter and they're the best Eastern European team at the moment. I still keep fond memories of Bruno Metsu's Senegal at WC2002, as I do of the relentless Shoji Jo, never stopping from his runs on the pitches of France in 1998. As for Colombia, how can one not be sympathetic for a team that came through the tragedies that battered their country in the 1990s, culminating with the assassination of Andres Escobar during WC1994? Who do I want to go through? Very, very tough, but I'm going to say Poland and Senegal. And because I want to, it will happen.

Let there be football and let us all cheer and get happy for countries we've barely heard of before. And for goodness' sake, let's fight all of our wars on a football pitch!

Go on Saudi Arabia!