Real Madrid: what happens when you run a club like a fantasy team

After Real Madrid’s surprise Champions League exit against a game Juventus, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti probably figured his countrymen had hammered down the final nail in the coffin of his coaching tenure with the Spanish giants. Add to that the fact that he is suspended for the last two games of the La Liga season, and Ancelotti has likely coached his last game for Real Madrid. It is a common theme at the world’s most famous and profitable club: when the team falls short of its own expectations, the reflex is to fire the coach and add another superstar or two.

In all likelihood, it’s about to happen again. As The Guardian‘s Sid Lowe noted, not since 1983 has a coach remained at Madrid after a trophyless season, and that manager was club legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whose unrivaled place in club lore most likely explains this exceptional clemency. Therefore, Ancelotti is unlikely to get the same treatment, although many people in and around the club are validly arguing that he should.

It starts at the top

Despite Emilio Butragueno’s cringe-inducing claim that Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is a “superior being” (un ser superior), Perez resigned from the post in 2006 after having presided over the club’s longest trophyless run in 50 years, amid wide-ranging criticism coming from virtually everywhere. It’s a testimony to both Madridistas’ short memory and to the ineptitude of Ramon Calderon, Perez’s successor, that the latter’s return to the Madrid presidency in 2009 was not only unopposed, but celebrated. Perez also generated tremendous buzz that summer by signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo over a span of four days, a spectacular reminder to Madridistas that, as long as Perez was President, they would at least have the benefit of never losing an offseason.

However, his new reign began in exactly the same way his initial one ended: with failure. Despite posting the highest point total of the team’s history, Madrid’s 2009 team finished behind an even more impressive Barcelona in the league, but that alone was justifiable. What was not, however, was Madrid’s improbable Round-of-16 Champions’ League exit against Lyon, and manager Manuel Pellegrini was predictably fired at the end of the season. Then, in a move that made sense on paper but had those who follow Madrid refusing to believe it until they saw it, Perez hired José Mourinho. The Special One had just won the Champions’ League with Inter Milan and beaten Barcelona along the way.

Mourinho is the antithesis of a Perez coach: brash, abrasive and unafraid to criticize (publicly or privately) the establishment of his club. After Mourinho predictably and quasi-instantly ruffled feathers among the Madrid administration, Perez made a decision that showed the full measure of his desperation to beat Pep Guardiola’s apparently unplayable Barcelona: he backed Mourinho, giving him full control over personnel. Mourinho had what one might describe as mixed results at the helm of Madrid, winning La Liga (which Madrid hadn’t done since 2007) in 2011, but ultimately falling short of winning the Champions’ League, and sparking highly-publicized spats with his own players, most notably Sergio Ramos.

In retrospect, Mourinho’s tendency for both condescension and inflammatory comments was guaranteed to cause many blowups with Madrid’s heavily political press (namely sport publications Marca and AS), unconditional Perez backers since his return to the presidency. His approach was also doomed when it came to his players. One could tell the Portuguese wanted his team to actually hate Barcelona, but it’s much harder to get a player to hate a club-football opponent he’s won a Euro tournament and a World Cup with. When Mourinho and Madrid ultimately agreed to part ways amid heavy speculation that the Portuguese manager would return to Chelsea, Perez insisted that Mourinho wasn’t a failure. However, his subsequent decision to hire Ancelotti was a sign that the President was not too keen on having another Mourinho-like personality at the helm of his club.

The perfect man for Perez

It is simultaneously a slur and a compliment to call Ancelotti the greatest yes-man in all of football. While he is certainly a coach of considerable tactical acumen, his personality trait most responsible for landing him coaching opportunities at many of world’s biggest clubs – most recently AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid – is the fact that he takes whatever roster is given to him, does his best to maximize its potential, and never complains. It has been a precious ability, because few high-level managers can claim to have had their chances to win more often short-circuited by imbecilic and short-sighted personnel decisions.

Therefore, Ancelotti was ready-made to run a Madrid team, a club where, as Lowe so eloquently puts it, perhaps the most important skill for a coach is his ability to fall on his sword. In his first season in charge, Ancelotti pulled off an extraordinary achievement, as he captured Madrid’s elusive tenth Champions’ League crown. It’s an even greater feat than it appears.

See, Madrid management admits that, under Perez, it builds the football team like a Hollywood blockbuster. Basically, let’s pile up as many stars as we can, and let the coach figure out how to line them up. It’s why Perez has historically gone for players with star power: either Ballon d’Or winners or World Cup stars or both. His Madrid teams have boasted six different Ballon d’Or winners, but before Cristiano Ronaldo won the award in 2013, none of them had captured it as a Real Madrid player.

Perez believes that stars pay for themselves, a belief about which it he’s been fortunate to be right, given the transfer fees he has paid for them. Of the five most expensive players ever, four were bought by Madrid, all of them by Perez. What perhaps constitutes the greatest critique of his model was made when Figo, Perez’s very first Galactico, said that “it all went wrong when marketing took precedence over football.” Figo’s words were no exaggeration. While no one would dare insinuate that results don’t matter at Real Madrid, it is interesting to see just how often the club uses the offseason to put disappointing seasons in the rearview mirror.

So Carlo Ancelotti arrives and wins the Champions League for Madrid on his first try. It is worth wondering whether he realized at that point how thankless his job had just become. There are several places where winning the Champions’ League, possibly the hardest trophy to capture in all of professional sport, would grant a coach an additional honeymoon period, but not in Madrid. The Champions’ League is Real Madrid’s holy grail. As an institution, they are absolutely obsessed by it. So even though he won it last year, Ancelotti likely arrived this season well aware that unless he won the league by 20 points, he would lose his job lest he win the Champions’ League again. Now that he has failed this objective, he is likely on his way out, a probability compounded by the fact that public perception will have it that, by losing, Madrid have basically handed the Champions’ League to arch-rivals Barcelona, in the same week that their draw against Valencia virtually assured the Catalans of the La Liga title.

Be that as it may, Florentino Perez and his advisers had better be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it. Could Perez be tempted to go with a stronger personality, i.e. something closer to Mourinho? Perhaps, but the candidates don’t abound, and the President’s track record suggests this is unlikely. Failing that, however, the alternative is what Gab Marcotti affectionately called a “diva whisperer.” In other words, a coach whose personality is just strong enough to prevent the team’s big egos from causing the squad to implode from within. And if that is the type of coach Perez is seeking, he’s about to fire the best one he could possibly find.

An incapacity for introspection

In addition to Ancelotti combining the yes-man persona with uncommon coaching abilities like nobody else, what he has achieved with Madrid is quietly spectacular. Of course, it’s what is expected of a coach as well-paid as Ancelotti, but this is no reason to minimize the significance of winning that Champions’ League title in 2014, and coming so close in 2015.

Real Madrid’s front office is apparently loaded with people who either don’t understand how team dynamics work, or who fool themselves into thinking a chemistry or balance problem can be solved by throwing one more potential 20-goal scorer on the squad. Any coach worth his salt will tell you it doesn’t work that way.

All those fancy signings look great on paper, but I’ve been watching sports for too damn long. A team cannot have multiple alpha dogs, that is to say a player around whom the team’s offence is built. It didn’t take a tarot card reader to figure out that, given his skill level and his personality, Cristiano Ronaldo would assume that role on arrival. But while he has given Madrid tremendous productivity, the fact that he has assumed the most significant portion of Real’s scoring has meant that several other stars brought in by the club have had to play the Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman. Before the injury bug hit Kaka, it was happening to him. Striker Karim Benzema, another player who would have had legitimate alpha dog aspirations, has had to turn himself into an assist provider for Ronaldo. And James Rodriguez, a classic no.10 signed after his spectacular display at the World Cup for Columbia, has struggled to find a role in Madrid’s 4-3-3.

Which is what made the 2013 signing of Gareth Bale signing so interesting. The Welch talisman is neither a global superstar nor a big-time performer in international tournaments. He’s just a really talented, speedy, and powerful footballer. Depending on the numbers you trust, Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid made him either the most, or second-most, expensive player in history. His price tag, given the things he can do, was ludicrous, and he now finds himself paying for it as he has endured a bad run of form in the 2015 half of this season. Rumours of Bale’s departure are fascinatingly fed by both the English media, hopeful to see Bale return to a Premier League they believe he never should have left, and the Madridista press, presumably anxious to see the Welchman make way for the next superstar with a stratospheric price tag.

At Tottenham, Bale was clearly the team’s alpha dog and its best player, but that didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t fit in with Madrid. In fact, there is still an argument to be made that he does fit in. At first, the idea of Bale joining Madrid seemed ludicrous: a player whose style, all based on speed and power, is so obviously informed by, and suited to, the English game would likely be seen as crude in Spain, a country where short passing rules and counter-attacking is not so much a strategy as it is a curse word. But on second thought, the combination of Ronaldo and Bale could work, because their skill sets complement one another. While Ronaldo is a dribbler who requires much of the ball and takes loads of shots, Bale is a player who frequently disappears, only to reappear just long enough to strike. He doesn’t need to touch the ball all that much to make an impact. It remains possible that he might be the perfect Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman, if he can just regain his form. It would be a shame to see Madrid give up on him so quickly, especially since he had a very good first season in Spain, but there are several English teams who would welcome him back if Madrid did choose to cut their losses.

While Marca called Los Blancos’ exit against Juventus the “fiasco of the century,” they ought to be saying that of the way this Real Madrid team was built. The importance of balance on a team is an element Perez has consistently overlooked, and the most recent example of this was the decision to let go of Xabi Alonso. In and of itself, the decision is defensible given Alonso’s age. The questionable move, however, was to replace Alonso with Toni Kroos. The German is doubtlessly an excellent player, but he cannot fill Alonso’s recover-and-launch role, and this is an attribute of which the Madrid roster now finds itself devoid. Kroos, who is much better as a creator than as a holding midfielder, has to play a defensive role he is ill-suited for because, well, someone has to do it. The same goes for the instinctive Luka Modric. What point is there to having these artistic passers on the team if their talents are going to be wasted? And who’s going to give all those scorers the ball if nobody on the pitch can consistently take it away from the other team?

It’s not just the midfielders, either. Scorers need enablers, and if the enablers are played out of position, everybody loses out in the end. In abstract terms, James Rodriguez just might be a better player than Angel Di Maria, but he’s not if you’re looking for a 4-3-3 winger who widens the play and creates space for Ronaldo and whoever is playing striker. Central midfielders played on the wing tend to take the ball back inside where they are more comfortable, and Rodriguez is no exception. By the time even Ancelotti found James’ situation untenable and ruled that he’s not a winger, we all remembered that the reason why Madrid put him there in the first place is because… there was nowhere else to put him. If you really have the temerity to put a no.10 behind the striker in a 4-3-3, those two remaining central midfielders better a) be defensive monsters, which can be said of neither Modric nor Kroos and b) have two sets of lungs, because they will have to cover an outrageous amount of ground when the opponent counter-attacks.

Perez’s declaration when he sold Claude Makelele (“We won’t miss Makelele much. All his passing either went sideways or backwards.”) and essentially replaced him with David Beckham betrays the fact that he refuses to acknowledge the existence of a fundamental part of football: taking the ball away from the other team. Zinedine Zidane, outraged by the move, lashed out with this question: “What is the point of giving the Bentley another coat of gold if you’re taking away the entire engine?”

Is there no one at Real Madrid, Zidane or someone else, who would dare raise this point with Perez? And even if there were, would Perez listen?

At a crossroads

Simply put, in trying to stockpile superstars, Perez has destroyed whatever balance Real Madrid previously had, which already wasn’t much. He now finds himself at the proverbial crossroads. He could decide to trust someone who tells him that adding a defensive midfielder wouldn’t hurt the team’s offensive productivity, but enhance it. If he does, Madrid would instantly benefit from the move and look less unbalanced than they were this year. Or he can decide that the Hollywood dimension of Real Madrid football is what’s most important and keep running the club like an online fantasy team. If he chooses the latter, the problems will remain; Madrid will keep underperforming, and to find the cause of this, Perez will need to look not in the dugout or on the pitch, but in the mirror.

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Jour 8 de la Coupe du Monde (et en français, en plus)

Décidément, cette Coupe du Monde ne finit pas de nous surprendre. Je sais que je commence à lasser mes proches à râler contre le tournoi franchement emmerdant de 2010, mais je ne peux que me réjouir en voyant la qualité et “l’entertainement value” de cette édition 2014. Le jour 8 en aura été un où la tendance s’est maintenue. Repassons donc les événements de la journée. 

Le choc du début de journée

Pour une deuxième rencontre consécutive, le Costa Rica s’est imposé contre un adversaire singulièrement décevant. Cette fois, ce sont les Italiens qui ont été plutôt mauvais sauf que, contrairement à l’Uruguay, dont c’est la défense qui a été franchement putride, aujourd’hui, c’est l’attaque italienne qui manquait à l’appel. Je ne tente pas du tout de diminuer l’importance de la réussite des Sud-Américains, qui continuent de faire mal paraître les pronostiqueurs qui les voyaient éliminés avant la fin de la phase de poules.

Toutefois, il reste que c’est avant tout la médiocrité italienne qu’on retient ici, et tout particulièrement le manque flagrant de créativité offensive des azzurri. Ils ont passé la journée à confier le ballon à Andrea Pirlo et à exiger de lui qu’il lobe le ballon à Balotelli par-dessus la défensive costaricaine. Pirlo est un joueur fabuleux, un de ces rares athlètes professionnels qui s’améliorent avec l’âge. Cependant, c’est un joueur qui est surtout menaçant lorsque vient le temps de servir une passe savante ou un coup franc meurtrier. Il y a plusieurs années qu’il n’est pas si dangereux lorsqu’il court avec le ballon. Si les Italiens avaient un genre de Mesut Özil ou de Wesley Sneijder pour compléter le travail de Pirlo et présenter une menace de marquer de l’extérieur de la surface de réparation, ils serait inarrêtables. Malheureusement, pour eux, ce n’est pas le cas et leur attaque était totalement uni-dimensionnelle aujourd’hui. 

Résultat: la trappe à hors-jeu sud-américaine, qui n’avait à se soucier de rien d’autre que de la longue balle, a donné lieu à un match somme toute assez ennuyeux caractérisé par une quantité inconcevable de hors-jeu et par des arrêts de jeu excessivement fréquents. 

De plus, on a encore eu droit à autre un échantillon d’arbitrage de qualité douteuse alors que Chiellini sort très clairement la hanche dans la surface de réparation afin de freiner un Campbell menaçant, sous l’oeil de l’arbitre qui choisit de laisser jouer. Après s’être remis de leur incrédulité quant à la décision de l’officiel, les Costaricains se sont eux-mêmes fait justice en allant chercher un but sur un superbe centre qui tombe parfaitement sur la tête de Bryan Ruiz, quoique Gigi Buffon, d’ordinaire irréprochable sur le plan technique, est coupable d’une hésitation qui lui enlève toute possibilité de parer le tir. 

Bref, une victoire méritée du Costa Rica, qui se qualifie pour le second tour et dont le dernier match de la phase de poule est contre une Angleterre qu’il éliminait par sa victoire contre les Italiens. Bon, quand tu bats une équipe uruguayienne dont l’âme offensive (Luis Suarez) est absente et dont la défensive est complètement à la rue, et ensuite une équipe italienne qui a peut-être livré sa pire performance sous la gouverne de Cesare Prandelli, on s’entend que, contre une bonne équipe en pleine possession de ses moyens, ça risque de pas mal se corser. Néanmoins, c’est déjà un super exploit de la part de cette équipe dont les supporteurs affichent une joie touchante à la vue de la réussite de leur effectif. 

Une dégelée à la française

Peu de gens ont été assez stupides pour prendre pour du cash la claque de 3-0 infligée à cette équipe du Honduras qui semblait plus intéressée à tabasser les Français qu’à les vaincre sur le tableau indicateur. Par contre, si on savait les Bleus nettement supérieurs aux Suisses d’un point de vue talent, le résultat de 5-2 étonne néanmoins. 

On attendait une équipe suisse qui, fidèle à son habitude, pallierait tant que possible son manque de qualités individuelles par une rigueur dans l’organisation, particulièrement en défensive. Or, le contraire s’est produit. Les Suisses ont commis une quantité effarante de bévues, notamment sur la passe arrière irréfléchie que Benzema se fait un plaisir d’intercepter et de refiler à Blaise Matuidi, qui marque le second de deux buts français en 66 secondes. On peut aussi penser à l’effort lamentable de Senderos, pas de niveau contre un tel adversaire, qui rate complètement le ballon que Benzema plante au fond du filet pour le quatrième but des Bleus. 

Ce fut ce genre de journée pour les rouges, qui avaient déjà concédé l’avance aux Bleus sur une merveilleuse tête de Giroud, lequel a plus tard traversé le terrain sur une contre-attaque pour enfin servir une fabuleuse passe à Valbuena, qui enlève aux Suisses le peu d’espoir qui leur restait après le penalty raté de Benzema. C’est la chose avec Giroud: sa vitesse et ses qualités techniques limitées le rendent souvent décevant contre les meilleurs adversaires mais, contre une équipe moins athétique, sa grandeur, sa puissance et ses talents aériens en font un attaquant franchement détestable à défendre. 

Les partisans français étouffent de plus en plus difficilement leur enthousiasme; le dernier tournoi où la France a gagné ses deux premiers matchs était la Coupe du Monde de 1998. Et on sait tous ce qui s’est passé cette année-là. Toutefois, ils auraient intérêt à se rappeler ce dont ils se réjouissaient avant le début du tournoi: ils sont tombés sur un groupe remarquablement faible. Bon, ils l’ont déjà gagné et on ne s’étonnerait pas de les voir déclasser la Bosnie, l’Iran ou le Nigeria en huitièmes de finale. Mais, une fois les quarts arrivés, ça va moins rigoler. Il sera intéressant de voir si les Bleus pourront tenir le rythme contre une équipe dont les moyens seront nettement supérieurs à ceux des sélections qu’ils auront vues.

Malgré le fait qu’on n’ait pas encore passé le stade où les dominations françaises sont à prendre avec un grain de sel, deux facteurs font en sorte qu’à titre personnel, je les prends nettement plus au sérieux qu’il y a une semaine. Primo, on ne choisit pas ses adversaires. Tout ce qu’on peut exiger d’une équipe nettement plus talentueuse que tous ses opposants est que la disparité de talent se fasse voir dans les résultats. Jusqu’à présent, c’est mission accomplie pour les Français. C’est très, très bon signe. Quand on se rappelle que cette équipe française était arrivée complètement absente après les incidents de Knysna et qu’elle s’était inclinée contre l’Afrique du Sud (!!!) pour finaliser sa descente aux enfers en 2010, on se rend compte que les Bleus, sous la gouverne de Laurent Blanc puis de Didier Deschamps, ont quand même fait un sacré bout de chemin psychologiquement. Les Français sont toujours talentueux. Si, en plus, ils peuvent éviter d’être disfonctionnels…

Après, on peut dire qu’ils n’ont joué contre personne. Or, aucune équipe ne gagne un tournoi comme la Coupe du Monde, dont l’issue repose sur une panoplie de détails, sans une bonne dose de chance. Mettez l’Angleterre, déjà éliminée, dans ce groupe et les Anglais le gagnent assurément, eux aussi. Cependant, ce sont les Français qui, jusqu’à maintenant, ont été chanceux dans leur cheminement. On ne peut le leur reprocher. C’est ça, les grandes compétitions. 

Secundo, je parlais du fait que l’état d’esprit de cet effectif est incomparable à celui de 2010 et même à celui de 2012. Si la campagne de comm “peace and love” de Didier Deschamps sonne faux tant elle est rose bonbon, il n’en demeure pas moins que cette équipe, en plus d’avoir évincé ses éléments perturbateurs, a un autre atout qui rend ses joueurs plus solidaires: celui de l’adversité partagée. Vous me direz que ce n’est pas la première fois que la France se qualifie sur la fesse pour un tournoi international. Vrai. Sauf qu’on sent chez les Bleus 2014 les liens que le fait de revenir d’un déficit de 2-0 contre l’Ukraine pour gagner 3-0 au Stade de France a créés. De dire qu’ils auront besoin de cette solidarité lorsque les adversaires seront meilleurs relève de l’euphémisme, mais la solidarité est là au sein de ce groupe et une équipe française unie est meilleure que bien, bien, bien des sélections et ce, dans n’importe quelle compétition. 

Un mot sur la belle surprise de la journée

Je dois vous avouer que je redoutais le match Équateur-Honduras. Les premiers ne m’avaient pas particulièrement impressionné dans leur défaite de dernière minute contre les Suisses et la performance hondurienne contre les Français était tout bonnement honteuse. 

J’ai donc été agréablement surpris de voir ces deux équipes nous servir un super match, pas renfermé du tout, que les Honduriens se maudiront d’avoir perdu parce qu’ils se diront, même si je déteste cette idée, qu’ils auraient mérité meilleur sort. Ils ont été tellement plus positifs que contre les Français qu’on en venait à se demander si une meilleure équipe n’avait pas piqué à l’effectif du premier match leur uniforme et affronté les Équatoriens à leur place.

La réaction du marqueur hondurien Costly après son puissant tir coin inférieur droit du filet et celle des supporters était un beau moment. Et si le premier but équatorien résulte d’une déviation remarquablement chanceuse, leur but victorieux vient d’une super tête d’Ehner Valencia sur un coup franc. 

Somme toute, mon constat quant à la qualité du spectacle reste le même: on se régale. 

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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