Monday, 14 July 2014

Now The Bride

20th World Cup Final, Mario Filho “Maracana”– Rio Di Janerio; Germany 1 Argentina 0 (After Extra Time)

Four years ago I mused that the finals of tournaments at times are a microcosm of the tournament.  The climax of the 20th World Cup mirrored the knock out stages – games with chances that were not taken or converted into goals.  In spite of not controlling the game, Argentina had all of the best chances and failed to take any of them.  Germany controlled the match, but could not manage to create a clear-cut chance until Mario Gotze’s chest & volley across Romero with 7 minutes of extra time remaining.

Germany were not at their best in the first half.  Pre-match Sami Khedera was withdrawn with Christoph Kramer taking his place.  Kramer only lasted 20 minutes as he suffered a head injury.  It was about this time that Argentina fluffed their first (best?) chance.  Kroos heading back to his keeper was interecepted by Higuain in lots of space. Higuian dragged his shot wide.  He did have the ball into the back of the net 9 minutes later, a Lavezzi cross was turned in by Higuain, who was just offside.  While Germany’s best chance in the first half came at the end, with Howedes hitting the bar with a header.

In the second half, Argentina made the change straight away, swapping Aguero for Lavezzi.  This meant a change of shape for Argentina switching to two up front with Messi playing behind.  This looked to pay dividends straight away when Higuain just strayed offside.  Moments later Messi had his best chance of the match – getting behind the German defence on the left he put the ball past the far post.  He should have scored.  Higuain also managed to recreate the famous Schumacher/Batistion incident with Neuer, with the same result!  Higuain was shortly afterwards replaced by the Inter Milan forward Rodrigo Palacio, while the all time leading goalscorer in World Cup finals matches Miroslav Klose made way before the end for Mario Gotze.

Extra Time saw the game open up.  Kramer’s replacement Schurrle hit a shot straight at Romero.  Aguero had a run at the German defence, but his cross couldn’t find an Argentinian recipient.  Argentina’s next great chance came when Hummels misjudged a cross to allow Palacio in one on one with Neuer.  Neuer came out narrowed the angle and Palacio’s attempted chip went wide.  The second period was scrappy before the breakthrough came with 7 minutes to go.  Schurrle attacked down the left and crossed in to the substitute Gotze, he chested the ball down and volleyed the ball across Romero (above).  The angled volley was all very reminiscent of Iniesta’s winner from four years ago.  Argentina had a chance right at the end though, Messi’s free kick sailed high, wide and not very handsome capping a miserable night for him.

Like Spain’s win four years ago, Germany’s win has created history.  Their fourth triumph is the first by a European team on American soil (no European team has triumphed either in North, Central or South America).  After being the bridesmaids to Spain’s European Championship win in 2008 (followed by semi final losses to Spain four years ago and to Italy in the subsequent European Championships) Germany are back in the winners circle for the first time since 1996 & their first World Cup win in 24 years – ironically enough the length of time between both Italy and Brazil’s third and fourth World Cup wins.

Like Brazil, Argentina were reliant on one player to generate a moment of magic.  Unlike Brazil, Argentina were solid defensively and gave nothing away.  Yet had Higuain, Messi or Palacio had the composure they obviously have for their club sides – Argentina could easily have won.  Like the Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola, Messi is lauded as one of the best but in truth falls short of true greatness.  He has had a good World Cup but not the great tournament needed to cement his place at the top table of great players.

As for the victors, Germany won the World Cup in the hardest way possible.  They came through a tough group playing all their matches in the sub tropical north with afternoon kick offs.  Respite came with their last 16 tie with Algeria – played in southern Porto Alegre.  The cold/flu outbreak possibly played a part in their muted quarter final win over France, but nothing will surpass that semi final win.  Like the great German sides of the past, you could set your watches with their arrival in the later stages of a football tournament – and their arrival would almost always be accompanied with their form.

While the big story at the start of this World Cup was the fall of Spain, the end could be construed with the rise of New Germany.  Except this side have been knocking at the door for a while now.  With Germany back in the winners circle, an exciting Belgium side now with tournament experience and Spain with some rebuilding to do (but with the bricks already available) both the next European Championships and the World Cup in four years should be interesting.  In the mean time, Germany are the deserved World Cup winners.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

When Old Rivals Meet

20th World Cup Final: Germany V Argentina, Maracana, Rio di Janerio (Sunday, 4pm – 8pm BST)

Matthaeus lifts the World Cup (with manager Beckenbauer just to the right), July 8th 1990
You know, four years ago I started previewing the Netherland’s chances of winning the World Cup by bemoaning Scotland’s luck in facing them.  Well it’s dejavouz all over again because for the fourth European Championships in a row, Scotland will face one of the World Cup finalists.  We were drawn with Germany for Euro 2004, had both the World Cup finalists for Euro 2008 and last time out had the defending champions who went on to pick up the World Cup as well.  Well now we’ve got Germany again, and not just that but we’re their next competitive match, after the small matter of Sunday’s World Cup final.

The strange thing though is that this Germany team have not been the force they were in South Africa.  Yes, they suffered defeats to Serbia and then to Spain in the semi but they did sweep aside England and (more pertinently given Sundays opponents) Argentina.  Maybe it was manager Löw’s attempt to make Germany less of a counter-attacking side (their 4-2-1-3 formation only applied when they were on attack, otherwise it was the conventional 4-2-3-1) swapping that formation for a 4-3-3 formation.

A result of that attempt to be more pro-active has been that re-shaping as well as some ackward selection decisions.  Ozil has not been nearly as creative as he was under Löw’s new system, while Bayern Munich’s Goetze has looked at times like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole.  At least these guy’s are getting game time though – Lukas Podolski has dropped out of the team altogether.

In spite of handing out spankings to Portugal and to Brazil lets not forget that Germany haven’t convinced at all times.  Ghana could have (and should have) beaten them in the group stages, while Algeria had their chances in the last 16 tie.  What is ominous for tomorrow is that Germany’s midfield of Schweinsteiger and Khedera are looking back on form.  Also looking to getting into serious form is Toni Kroos, who bagged a brace in Tuesday’s semi final.  This three will provide the protection for whoever Germany play at the back, with their pressing game,  and also the foundation for Muller, Ozil & co (whoever gets the nod for tomorrow).   Argentina have no chance, right?

Well not exactly.  Since the knock out stages, Messi has sort of gone missing, conventional wisdom dictates that he is due a game.  A performance at the next game would confirm his status as the best player in the world right now.  With Sabella as coach, Messi would be given the same sort of platform to perform as Maradona was given in 1986.

Whilst not as tactically as innovative as that 1986 side – the first to win the World Cup playing 3-5-2 – Sabella’s side is from the Bilardismo school of Argentinian football – the polar opposite of Mennoti, Bielsa and Pekerman – in that his sides have been safety first sides.  In this respect, the key man for Argentina has not been any of their attacking options but the re-cycled centre-back Javier Mashcerano, back playing in his preferred position of midfield anchor.  No moment typified this than when Mascherano’s intervention stopped Robben’s near certain chance at scoring in added time in Wednesdays semi.

What this match looks like coming down to is that idea, floated by Jose Mourinio, that it will be the moments of transition that will decide the match.  Those moments where one side is dispossessed when their players are slightly out of position.  It was these moments that Germany controlled brilliantly on Tuesday and will need to do so again to beat a much more defensively cohesive Argentina side.  Yet Germany’s high line also provides a weakness for Argentina to attack, especially if they play Messi, Higuain and Lavessi as the attacking three players.

This will be the sixth meeting in the World Cup between these sides.  They first met in the group stages in 1966, a 0-0 draw at Villa Park saw both sides through to the quarter finals.  Then came the two finals. In the final in 1986, a Brown goal midway through the first half and a Valdano goal 10 minutes into the second half put Argentina on easy street, Germany struck back with goals from Rumenigge and Voller to level with 10 minutes to go.  With three minutes to go a Germany attack broke down, the ball came to Maradonna who put a through ball to Burrachaga (above) who slotted past Schumacher.  The final four years later was different – a tight bad tempered affair that saw the first sendings off in a World Cup final – Argentina’s Pedro Monzon was sent off in the 65th minute for fouling Jurgen Klinsmann while Gustavo Dezotti was sent off in stoppage time for manhandling Jurgen Kohler.  Sensinni’s foul on Rudi Voller with 6 minutes to go saw West Germany awarded the penalty that Andreas Brehme converted with.  Still the worst game of football (alongside the 9 in a row Old Firm game in 1997) that I’ve ever seen.

16 years passed before they met again, in the quarter finals of the 2006 tournament.  The tie in Berlin finished 1-1 – Ayala just after half time before Klose equalised with 10 minutes to go – with Germany maintaining their record of not losing on penalties thus ending Argentina’s own 100% record.  Their last meeting was four years ago in the quarters again when Germany romped home 4-0 – their counterattacking was probably at it’s peak in that match as Muller, Klose (2) and Friedrich grabbed the goals in Cape Town.

With the best team on the planet in transition, there is an unexpected vacancy at the top.  Whether it will be a German side that has been there or thereabouts in recient years, losing out to Spain in the Euro’s in 2008 and the World Cup four years ago, or whether Messi will deliver that performance in the World Cup that’s the only thing missing from his CV.  Tomorrow’s final will hopefully not mirror the 1990 final or the first meeting in 1966.  This tournament deserves a better send off than any of the last 6 tournaments have provided.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

World Cup 2014: The Quarter Finals

So, 56 games down and 8 to go before we find out who will succed Spain as World Champions. Most comments have been positive towards this World Cup. Personally, i want to see what happens next before passing judgement – USA ‘94 looked exciting before a drap pair of semi finals and a final that was only marginally better than the worst game of football ever that was the conclusion of Italia ‘90.

France V Germany; Rio Di Janerio: Friday 1pm (5pm BST) 

First up is the third meeting between these sides, though their two other meetings were World Cup semi finals and when it was only West Germany. Their first meeting in the World Cup finals was in that semi final in Seville in 1982 – the Schumacher “lunge” at Battiston (right), the West German fightback after France went 3-1 up in extra time - all of which culminated in the first World Cup finals match to be decided by a penalty shoot-out which the Germans, of course won. Four years later and in Guadalajara West Germany won a much more comfortable semi final 2-0 with an early Brehme goal and a late Voller goal. 

France have been a surprise package in this tournament. Shorn of Ribbery through injury and Nasri by choice, Deschamps side have been open and attacking, with Pogba maturing with every performance and Benzema the spearhead of France’s attack. Germany on the other hand have really to still hit the form they showed when they blew away Portugal 4-0 in the first game with their performance in the match against Algeria their worst yet. I think that France will win, but have a sneeking suspicion that the old Germany that people set their watches to with their arrival at the business end of tournaments is back. 

Brazil V Columbia; Fortaleza: Friday 5pm (9pm BST)
The winners of that first semi will face the winners here in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday. Brazil have been ropey at best, firmly in the shadow of the glorious Brazil sides from 1970 or 1982. Brazil’s defence and their over reliance on Neymar da Silva Santos Jr has seen them to this stage of the tournament. In their way is a Columbia side that many thought would be good, but not this good. Shorn of their attacking spearhead – Radamel Falcao was injured in January playing for Monaco and just missed out on this tournament – Columbia have adapted admirably – with James Rodriguez arguably the player of the tournament thus far. It should also be noted that Columbia had followed Chile in appointing a former Argentina manager who promotes promising young players – though Pekerman isn’t as tactically innovative as Marcelo Bielsa.

This will be the first meeting between the two teams in the World Cup finals, though their last actual World Cup meeting came during the mammoth qualifying campaign for 2010 – 0-0 in Bogota (in October 2007) and 0-0 in Rio (in October 2008). I think that Brazil will somehow make the semis, logic dictates that Columbia have been the better side in this tournament but something’s telling me Brazil will sneek this somehow. 

Argentina V Belgium; Brasillia: Saturday 1pm (5pm BST)
Like the first Semi on Friday, the first semi on Saturday features two teams that met in the 80’s but haven’t seen much of each other since. Argentina’s first meeting with Belgium came when they opened the 1982 World Cup at the Nou Camp, and Belgium spoiled the party. Vandenbergh’s goal saw the holders make the worst possible start – an experience they would go through 8 years later. Their next meeting would be sooner than that, as they were the other semi finalists in 1986 (above) – a Maradona brace saw Argentina into a final meeting with West Germany. 

Like Brazil, Argentina have been too reliant on on individual – Messi. Yet there should be enough talent to be more than just Messi’s supporting cast – Higuain & Lavezzi in particular haven’t been particularly great. Belgium have been tipped as dark horses – so reaching this stage is sort of par. Yet Belgium, like Argentina, haven’t really clicked. There were stages in the tie with the USA where it looked like Belgium were clicking… I think an experienced Argentina side will sneek through, maybe after extra time. 

Netherlands V Costa Rica; Salvador: Saturday 5pm (9pm BST)
Bidding to face either Argentina or Belgium in Wednesday’s semi final in Sao Paolo will be another pair who have never met in a World Cup finals match. Like Columbia, this will be the furthest Costa Rica have gone in a World Cup – having reached the knock out stages once before in 1990. Thankfully there’s no sign of their tormentor in chief that night – Thomas Skuhravy. Instead there’s Robben, Van Persie and Schneider. 

On the face of it, the Netherlands should blow Costa Rica away. They have been in pretty good form this World Cup, only looking like coming unstuck against Mexico in the last round. Yet they did let down their guard against Australia, only winning 3-2 and Costa Rica did beat Uruguay and Italy in their group games. I think the tea-time slot will help the Netherlands but I think this one could well go to extra time again.
So far this World Cup has been bubbling along nicely, now we are at the meat and potatoes of this tournament –lets hope we are not disappointed.