A few thoughts on the World Cup so far

So far, it has been an interesting tournament, in sharp contrast to the South African snoozefest of 2010, where one could legitimately argue that we didn’t see a single high-quality match until the semifinal confrontation between Spain and Germany. While this year has given us dodgy defending and even worse officiating (looking at you, Mr. Japanese-ref-who-did-the-Brazil-Croatia-opener), it’s much more compelling to see a comedy of errors leading to a dramatic finish between Switzerland and Ecuador than to be put to sleep by teams like New Zealand, so determined not to concede that they were willing to park not just the bus but the entire garage in front of their net. (Yes, I’m still bitter about the whole competition. All of it. It was garbage. I wanted Platini and Blatter’s heads on a platter for making it a 32-team monstrosity.)

Meanwhile, in 2014, the competition has featured 13 matches. Only two of them have yielded less than three goals. We had to wait four days for a draw, and even the Nigeria-Iran match should not have been one. The referee disallowed a perfectly good goal for Nigeria by calling a phantom foul on the Nigerian attacker fighting for the ball. Did I mention the shoddy officiating?

We also had two extremely surprising blowouts: First, the Netherlands decided they felt like playing up to their potential and handed defending champion Spain their first loss of the tournament, not to mention their ass. Even the most enthusiastic, biased Dutchman couldn’t have seen the 5-1 beatdown coming. Obviously, everything went right for one team and wrong for the other in this game, the climax of which was this goal that must be seen to be believed:

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Then, there was a squad of unknown, a.k.a. Costa Rica, who came into their faceoff with Uruguay as huge underdogs and preyed on the Urugayans’ atrocious defence to snatch a 3-1 victory, much to the delight of Ghanaians everywhere. Of course, Uruguay was missing arguably its best player in Luis Suarez, but one would have expected the likes of Edinson Cavani and even the past-his-prime Diego Forlan to abuse the Costa Rican defence. Instead, it was the other way around, and Uruguay now finds itself in a vulnerable position, with England and Italy as its two remaining group stage opponents.

All in all, it’s been a fun tournament so far. So here are a few key points that have struck me so far:

1. Cristiano is not enough

As I watched the CBC halftime crew comment on Ronaldo’s discreet first half performance against Germany, it struck me just how much of a one-man team Portugal has become. The sheer unfairness of the expectations placed on Ronaldo, ridiculously gifted and focused though he may be, drive even me, not Ronaldo’s biggest fan, absolutely insane. Sure, the rest of Portugal’s squad is good enough to allow Ronaldo to score goals galore against the likes of Azerbaijan in World Cup qualifiers, but when you’re facing one of the world’s three best teams, the squad Portugal field just isn’t good enough to aspire to victory. In fact, it isn’t even good enough to allow Ronaldo to use his skills in any meaningful way.

Hugo Almeida, an inadequate replacement for Pauleta when he took over the starting striker position back in 2008, was still the best choice at the position for Coach Paulo Bento. This is not a good sign. Almeida is an imposing figure, but he scares no one with his movement or his technical skills. There isn’t a coach alive who would not line up the Great Wall of China in front of Ronaldo and take his chances with Almeida. To make matters worse, Almeida suffered an early injury and Bento had to sub him off in the 28th minute. Meanwhile, Nani remains too sporadic a performer to demand the kind of attention his athletic skills should warrant, and Joao Moutinho continues to underwhelm when it comes to creating from midfield.

Speaking of midfield, the Portuguese trio of Moutinho, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles suffered tremendously from Pepe’s stupidity and subsequent expulsion. Ineffectual up to this point, Veloso was subbed off following Pepe’s dismissal, which forced Meireles, the only midfielder with enough quality to recoup balls from the Germans in midfield, to play much deeper, negating his effectiveness. This added to the fact that the Portuguese defence, decent at best even with Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, figures to be missing the two of them against the USA. In goal, Rui Patricio looks shaky at best, with a tendency to give juicy rebounds with a crowd around his net. The level of play on the field today was too high for him.

This Portugal team is one of those that isn’t as good as the sum of its parts. I understand that the talent on the roster suggests the probability of better results, but I’m so used to this from Portugal that anything other than serious underachievement on their part would amaze me. Obviously, Germany was their toughest matchup of the group stage; neither Ghana nor the United States is stopping the Germans’ attack unless they’re allowed to use two-by-fours. But Portugal better get it together quickly as they face an American team that, while it does not sport a single world-class player, has the wind in its sails and whose hopes of reaching the knockout stage just got much more realistic after beating Ghana.

2. France had better not get too fond of itself

Am I the only one who wasn’t that impressed with France’s 3-0 victory against Honduras? And I’m not even talking about the quality of the opposition. Sure, Honduras fielded a team so poor, and so nasty even those Brits who participate in those shin-kicking competitions said, “those lads are out of control!”

But before Wilson Palacios was sent off after hacking away at Paul Pogba’s ankles, the French were struggling to find open spaces to fit the ball. Though everyone seemed very impressed with Karim Benzema’s performance, he still strikes me as a guy who too often makes the wrong decision with the ball at his foot inside the penalty box. And that’s not even counting his streakiness, which is well on its way to becoming the stuff of legends.

Others were also full of praise for Mathieu Valbuena’s performance on the right wing. Both he (right) and Antoine Griezmann (left) whipped in a few interesting crosses in the box, but neither one  is Frank Ribery with the ball on his foot, and the absence of Ribery and his ability to be a matchup problem for just about any defender will haunt them against better teams. Hell, they struggled to create at 11 v. 11 against what has to be the worst team of the tournament. I can’t call that impressive. Obviously, France will top this terrible group, and maybe even win a match in the knockout stage, but if they got past the quarters, I’d be very surprised.

3. Argentina should really stick with their second half formation

“Messi was quiet,” “Messi continues to struggle to replicate his Barcelona form with Argentina.” That’s what I kept hearing going into halftime of Argentina’s match against Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, manager Alejandro Sabella had a stroke of genius at halftime when he replaced the anonymous Maxi Rodriguez with Gonzalo Higuain, who lined up next to Sergio Agüero as a second striker with Messi roaming behind the two of them.

From that moment on, Messi had tons of room to work with as the Bosnian defence had to respect the threat of these two talented frontmen. The end result was that exquisite second Argentinian goal that Messi scored, much to everyone’s delight. I’m no soccer connaisseur, but if I’m Sabella, I’m sticking with that formation and challenging the opposition to deal with Messi AND the Agüero-Higuain tandem. That’ll make for a headache.

4. Is this the coming out party for a supremely talented Belgian team? 

I’m not sure what the starting lineup will be for Belgium, but here’s what the 4-3-3 I’d play would look like:

  • Goalkeeper: Thibault Courtois
  • defence (from right to left): Anthony Vanden Borre, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen
  • Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele and Axel Witsel
  • Forwards: Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne (wingers) and Romelu Lukaku (striker)

WOW! This is some serious talent. If they were to meet France, the only thing that would give me pause about picking them is their lack of experience. Of these 11 starters, only half are older than 25, only two of those six (Fellaini and Dembelé) are not defenders, and all three frontmen are 23 or younger. Eight (!!!!) of these eleven players are either owned by, and/or play for, Premier League clubs, and that figure would have been nine had Chelsea not sold De Bruyne to Wolfsburg in the January transfer window. Add Thibault Courtois, age 22, the world’s most promising young keeper, and you have a team that’s absolutely loaded. Chemistry remains a question mark, with identity crises and linguistic tensions common in Belgium. But if they keep it together, they have the talent to create some serious sparks. And even if they should prove too young this time around, when I think of think of 2016…. my, my, my!!

Anyways, that’s it for now, Territory readers. We’ll do this again soon. Night, night.

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