World Cup Qat_ar 2022 – Round 1

The World Cup can be exhilarating and it can be excruciating. It can put you in the best of moods, it can put you in the worst of moods. It can lead to joy, or it can lead to borderline depression.

This year’s edition of the Cup is being played in November instead of traditional summer months due to the excessive heat in the gulf nation of Qatar. Teams had only 7 days to prepare since all of the worlds’ leagues are in season. Most players are in form but many players are also injured. The list of the missing is long: Manne (Senegal), Benzema, Kante, and Pogba, Nkunku (France), Joto (Portugal), James (England), Corona (Mexico). But many of the stars are here (Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, Lewandoski, Courtois, etc.) and should be in in-season form.

Senegal’s fans poised for their team to surprise. Senegal lost Netherlands 2-0.

Five days into the 2022 edition, there has already been misery and happiness. Argentina, the favorite to win it all, the team that had a 36 unbeaten match streak (1 short of Italy’s record), lost in a shocking upset in Group B’s initial game against Saudi Arabia.

Messi laments another bad start.

The loss sent Messi’s chances of winning the World Cup plummeting (teams that lose their first game have only an 11% chance of advancing to the knockout phase). For a player as loved and admired as Messi, it’s a painful reminder of how hard it is to win this competition. Over the past 8 years, Messi has lost a championship game and then been eliminated by the eventual champion in the Round of 16.

After going ahead on a Messi PK early in the game, Argentina had two goals disallowed due to offsides. The Argentinians never were able to solve that high defensive line, never tried an alternative tactic, and never recovered. Instead of having a comfortable three goal lead, they were up by the minimum margin at half. Saudi Arabia came out in the second half in a more attacking shape and were able to score two goals in the first 15 of the second half. Argentina now face a huge uphill battle, not unlike what they faced in the 2018 World Cup, after which they had only 1 point after two games. Their second game against Mexico, an old historic rival who they’ve beaten twice in dramatic fashion in the Round of 16, now will be one of the most fascinating of the tournament.

For the other megastar of this generation, the first game was kinder. He scored on a penalty kick in the 75th minute of Portugal’s tough encounter with Ghana, becoming the first player in history to score in 5 World Cups. Ghana tied the game up 1-1 with a goal from Jonathan Awei, Ghana’s most capped player ever, but then Portugal scored two goals within 5 minutes to go up 3-1. A late Ghanain goal made it interesting, but Portugal prevailed in the end 3-2 in the most exciting game. Winning your first game is always good. For a team like Portugal, led by one of the most confident and clutch players of all time, they now look poised to make a deep run.

Ronaldo celebrates historic goal

The first five days of the Cup also produced the usual, if not unexpected, drama for all the other teams in the tournament.

Mexico, who had been severely criticized by the Mexican media and fan base alike for their poor form, came up big in their first game by outplaying Poland. Memo Ochoa, who always plays excellently in the World Cup, made a fantastic PK save from one of the world’s best strikers, Robert Lewandoski, to preserve a nil-nil tie. The next match against Argentina should be a classic as both teams need a win, with Argentina the most desperate side and facing the most pressure to get a result. Clashes between these two countries have always been competitive and compelling; this edition, with everything that is at stake, should be no different.

The other huge upset was Japan outlasting Germany 2-1. Germany came out firing on all cylinders, took a 1-0 lead from a Gundogan PK and got a second that was disallowed. Then Japan struck back late in the game, scoring two goals in the last 15 minutes to upset the Germans.

MInutes before that offensive burst, sensational goalkeeping by the Japanese keeper Gonda kept Germany from winning the game. He made 6 saves in a one minute sequence that allowed Japan to make its comeback. In one, he denied Gnabri once from a potent header and then from a hard shot off the rebound. The winning goal was a masterpiece.

Takano Osana deftly controlled a 50 yard pass pass from a free kick with his right foot, masterfully controlling it with a sublime first touch that allowed him to dribble into the box all while shielding the ball from his defender. His second touch took him straight to Neuer, who he beat with a thunderous high and powerful shot. Neuer defended the goal with his hands below his shoulders and was beaten to the only spot he wasn’t defending, a shot that roofed the net. 

Spain clobbered Costa Rica 7-0 with many of their young players in shining form. Gavi, Pedri, Rodri, Olmo, and Torres, et al all shared in the scoring in the rout of the 4th place team from CONCACAF. Two statistics summarize this game: Spain completed more than 1000 passes and Costa Rica had only 19% possession, the lowest number since possession statistics have been tracked. Spain is a footballing factory. Spain is fifth behind Brazil, Argentina, France and Colombia in the number of professionals in the top leagues worldwide. But year after year, team after team, you see quality professional players from Spain. Along with the two South American powers and the defending FIFA champions, the Spanish are ubiquitous. And their national team shows it.

https://football-observatory.com/IMG/sites/mr/mr55/en/

England beat Iran decisively by a 6-2 scoreline. The Iranian team scored a moral and political victory when they decided to not sing the national anthem before the game. Given the historical enmity that exists between Iran and the US, not to mention the recently imposed by the latter country over the former, the US encounter with Iran will be fascinating. The US should not take Iran lightly however; they should remember Iran’s victory over the Americans in 1998 and learn that history can repeat itself. The US managed a 1-1 tie with Wales that seemed more like a defeat due to their dominance early on.

Belgium squeezed out a 1-0 victory over a Canadian team that was far superior most of the game. The Canucks haven’t been in a World Cup since the last century and are still looking for their first World Cup goal. Their best player, Alfonso Davies, had a chance to secure that but his PK was stopped by Courtois, one of the best keepers in the world.  

Brazil made their debut with an impressive 2-0 victory over Serbia. Richarlison scored his first two goals for the Scratch D’Oro. On his second goal, he received a three three-toe pass from Vinicius from the left side, popped it up to himself, and then launched himself into the air and scored off a scissors kick. Jogo bonito exemplified in all phases of the game, passing, individual trickery and magical finishing. If Brazil play like this throughout the tournament, nobody will beat them.

Golazo !

After the first round, the favorites are the usual suspects: England, Brazil, Spain, France, Portugal. On a second tier,  Holland, Belgium, and Japan. The two huge disappointments have been Germany and Argentina. The blue-chip teams have prevailed. No teams have emerged as surprises, at least not yet.

Real Madrid – Manchester City Epic Semi-Final

The Merengues beat City in a thrilling two legs 6-5 with glorious comeback at the Bernabeu

Rodrygo scores tying goal in Leg 2

To the City players, the fans, and especially to their manager Pep Guardiola, City’s semi-final Champions League matchup against Real Madrid must have felt like a Dickensian nightmare, a tale of two legs, one in which it was won and then ultimately lost. It was the best of games, it was the worst of games. We had the lead, we lost the lead. We had the chance to go to the championship, we lost the chance to compete in the championship.

One of the genius ideas of modern football competition is the concept of two legged competitions. The winner is decided by an aggregate score played over two matches: the home game and the away game. Viewers are treated to two games instead of one and in most cases. the single game miracle (a wondrous event in itself for underdog teams) is eliminated. With two games, the best team usually prevails because luck and bad fortune tend to be minimized and superior talent and coaching prevail. Can you imagine if Russia and Spain had to play two legs in the 2018 World Cup quarter-final ? Is there any doubt that Spain would have won that second leg to advance ? Russia would not have beaten Spain over two legs. Spain would not have suffered a collapse of Dickensian proportions.

So was the case (and an exemplary case and argument for the two-legged series) with the Real Madrid – Manchester City matches played out over 8 days last week. A matchup of two iconic teams; one at the top of the competition (Madrid have won 13 Championship trophies – the most of any club in history), the other trying to become a Champions League winner for the very first time.

Manchester City has been the best team in the English Premier League for 10 years, winning 5 League titles. In the Champions League, however, Manchester City has experienced nothing but heartbreak. Pep Guardiola has arguably assembled the best team in modern football, its possession game unrivaled, but it has been unable to enshrine itself with the title by winning the Champions League. After losing the final last year to EPL rivals Chelsea last year, City made another run this year but finally met their match again against the Merengues, who were not to be denied, once again.  This made it the 7th out of 8 times that City has been eliminated before reaching the championship game [1]. Six of those losses have come at the semi-final stage. Guardiola now holds the ignominious title of having lost the most of any manager at that juncture.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, knows nothing but glory in this competition. From the onset of the European club championships, Madrid has won in bunches (first five from 1950-1955, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016-2018). The teams have spawned nicknames such as the Galacticos of the early 2000’s, the Merengues, and even the Vikings ! The team has been led by some of the greatest players of all time: DiStefano, Puskas, Raul, Guti, Zidane, Ronaldo, and Cristiano Ronaldo, just to name a few.

Real Madrid Greats

The first leg was played in City’s home, Etihad Stadium. It was an instant classic. City was the superior team in the beginning and went up 2-0 inside of 11 minutes: DeBruyne on a valiant header with a leg in his face and de Jesus with a nice turn inside the box after Alava misplayed the entry pass. The Sky Blues had plenty of more chances before the half was over: Mahrez could have made it 3-0 at 25’ but decided to shoot into the side netting with Foden wide open in the middle for a cross. Foden himself pulled one wide 3 minutes later. Benzema drew one back at 33’ with a nice left-footed volley into the corner off of a cross from Mendy. Benzema has been the highest scoring forward in the Champions League with 15 goals.

In the second half, City came out firing on all cylinders. In minute 52. Fernandinho beat Vinicius Jr. to a loose ball and then streaked down the right side putting in a perfect cross to an unmarked Foden, who headed the ball in. The encontre between Brazilian national players would be featured again just two minutes later, and as a bonus, would also feature a third Brazilian in a footballing menage a trois. Receiving a pass down the right wing, in his own half, Vinicius let the ball go through his legs as he pirouetted, leaving Fernandinho in his wake. Vinnie Jr, known mostly for his blazing pace, used his most exquisite skill to beat all other defenders 50 meters into the City box, where a last sublime touch set him up perfectly to beat an onrushing Ederson. City, which had rightly dominated large stretches of this game, was now only up 3-2. Game on, as the British are so fond of saying.

But City wasn’t done trying to stretch the lead, trying to put the game out of Real’s reach. In the 73rd, deBruyne was fouled outside the box, but with the ball falling neatly to Bernardo Silva, the referee let play go on. Silva drilled the ball past a stunned Courtois, who seemed to cheat towards the middle just a bit, with a banger to make it 4-2. It was the third time City had a two goal lead, but they couldn’t keep it. In the 81st minute, LaPorte was flagged for a handball in the box on a cross, his right hand elevating to an unnatural, stretched out position as he jumped. Ever since the inception of VAR, that is now called every single time.

So who else to take this most important PK but Benzema, the leading scorer in Champions League.

Let’s digress here a bit to savor the sheer aesthetic beauty of what occurred next, both on the pitch and in the narrative description of the action. The first tangent I’d like to entertain you with is the wording of the English commentator. I am, in general, very fond of English announcers. They are thoroughly professional in every sense of the word. They are always fully prepared, they do their homework with respect to the teams and the players, injury status, managerial intrigues, place in the table and other competitions. They narrate the action in a thoughtful, clear manner. But what they excel at, what they are the greatest at, in my opinion, is that they capture the essence of the football set piece (PKs, set pieces, corners, etc.) like no other announcers in the world. The prose they wield is so exceptional that it is often described as Shakespearean. Of all the announcers in the British school, Peter Drury is truly one its finest exhibitors, a master at capturing football’s drama. Right before the penalty was taken Drury narrated: ‘Benzema, in the midst of the Blues, in a moment that matters massively … Karin Benzema, immaculately calm, ridiculously calm, deliciously calm. It’s 4-3.’ Elegant, succinct, pure bliss !

Benzema’s fabulous Panenka

The second digression is the decision by players to shoot a penalty kick as initially invented by Czech player Antonin Panenka, who first used it in the UEFA Euro 1976 final to beat Germany and claim the title for Czechoslovakia. Panenka was the last kicker in that shootout. The kick has gained fame because of the simplicity of the execution under immense pressure. It looks easy to do, but it’s only because the greats make it look so. Pele described Panenka as either “a genius or a madman.” The kick has been attempted since but only a handful of times in major cup competitions (Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final and Alexis Sanchez in 2015 Copa America Final). Leonel Messi, playing for Paris St. Germain, was the only other player to attempt it in a Champions League game against RB Leipzig in 2021.

From a purely statistical perspective, there is a great risk of taking a Panenka. Chances of missing are high. It is much safer to use conventional PK taking techniques. So why did Benzema do it ? I don’t believe that it was due to the fact that he had missed his previous 2 PK’s during league play and thought the Panenka technique was his best bet for success. The reason is more complex and less pragmatic. Was Benzema trying to send a message to City ? Was he playing a high-stakes mind game that if successful would deflate the opponent for the next game ? Benzema sensed the importance, seized the dramatic moment and put his own definitive stamp on it. As my good friend Robert, a very eloquent West Virginian native texted me soon thereafter: “What Benzema did was some pure carpe diem shit y’all.’

It’s all about the psychology of it. As described in various studies cited in Wikipedia: “According to studies, a Panenka has a lower scoring probability over placement or power, though it is alleged that if successful, a Panenka’s psychological impact on the opposite team may be profound, which may be why penalty takers elect to use it.” [2]

I have to believe that Benzema’s decision at this juncture, and his subsequent successful execution, was, in my opinion, the defining moment of the series. Even though it didn’t tie or give Real the lead, it had its intended effect of. It gave Real an opening, a hope that they could overcome a one goal lead as they headed home. But more importantly it put a serious dent into City’s confidence.

City hung-on for a 4-3 victory. It could have been (should have been) 5-3. A one goal lead against a team of this pedigree and tradition felt tenuous at best going into the second leg at the Bernabeu. At the time I didn’t have a good feeling for Pep’s squad. Forget all of the marvelous City players and beautiful team play; the only thing that I could vividly remember, what truly resonated in my head over and over, was that glorious Panenka and Drury’s magnificent description of it.

The second leg didn’t feature the plethora of goals that the first one did, but the action was still top notch nonetheless. Early on, tensions ran high as both LaPorte and Modric earned yellows after a scrum in which it appeared that LaPorte slapped Modric in the face as he was being pushed down to ground. No goals came in the first half but there was plenty of action as both Courtois and Eder made key saves throughout. Courtois was the more active of the two as he had to make 4 saves from shots on frame.

The second half started similarly with both teams with chances. City with shots on frame and Real with close encounters but skying their shots.

When Mahrez smashed the ball to Courtois’ near post in the 73nd minute to put City up 5-3 on aggregate, their fans went crazy. It truly felt that City had done enough, and by their accomplishments would reach their second consecutive final. But something inside of me said that Madrid was not done yet. When I saw that Camavinga was coming on for Modric in the 75th minute, it felt like something was brewing for the Merengues.

The most expensive 15 minute specialist in world football, Jack Grealish, came on in the 78th minute. Courtois made an amazing save on a swerving shot from Cancelo shortly after Grealish won a free kick in the 83rd. Minutes later, Grealish threatened down the left flank, dribbling his way into the area and his shot was just barely cleared off the line by Mendy. In the 87th Grealish threatened in the area again, faking with his right foot and dragging the ball onto his left foot and took a shot that barely grazed the far post. Grealish came close not once but twice. A goal at this stage surely would have put it beyond reach.

Then came either the epic collapse or comeback depending on your perspective (Did Manchester United win or did Bayern collapse in the infamous 1999 championship game when United scored two goals in injury time to win ? You be the judge.) In the 90th minute, Camavinga (my man) passed into Benzema’s left foot in the area. Benzema, usually the goal scorer, turned playmaker by leaping into the air and crossing a ball with his left foot that Rodrygo took on the short-hop and flicked past Ederson to tie the game and bring Real to within one of the aggregate. Only 88 seconds later, in injury time, Rodrygo scored on a header to tie the aggregate score at 5. Drury, at it again, said: “They prayed for miracles and miracles arrived.” Miracle indeed, as Carvajal’s cross met Valverde’s head first and his slight deflection landed at Rodrygo’s doorstep, served on a platter. In injury time, Rodrigo almost won it outright with a close range shot that was saved by Ederson.

Not since United’s Ole Gunner Solskjaer heroics in the afore-mentioned 1999 championship game has a substitute had such an impactful effect on a game. Had he scored, he would have eclipsed Solskjaer’s performance.

Had the away goal rule still been in effect, this game would have ended right there and then (Madrid had 3 away goals versus only 1 for City). But since the rule was rescinded this year, that meant extra time. In the 94th minute Camavinga streaked down the right side and passed to Rodrygo who crossed into the box, where Benzema touched it first before being fouled by Ruben Diaz. The referee signaled for a PK and Benzema very calmly (once again) put his PK away to give Madrid the lead it would not relinquish. Three goals in a span of 5 minutes did City in. There was more football played, but Madrid just had to hang on. Courtois got another fingertip to save to deny Fernandinho at the far post right at the midpoint of extra time. That would be City’s last gasp.

Like Ali against Foreman, Real had absorbed City’s best punches throughout two legs and came back swinging with one final flurry to vanquish their daunted opponent. City just had nothing left at the end.

How did this happen ? My belief is that the Madrid players carry on a proud tradition of the club and they fully know it. Going into any match, they have a mental fortitude built up over years of winning tradition, a kind of club genetic code. Even if many of the players weren’t alive for much of this history, it somehow is ingrained in the mentality of the players. Madrid’s management team is one of the best at assembling great talents and handing the reins over to the greatest managers to herd them towards trophy after trophy. Their current manager, Carlo Ancelotti, is now in his second stint coaching the club and won it all in 2014.

City hasn’t ever won this championship, never tasted that glory. Their players haven’t quite lept high enough to clear that last hurdle. If City keeps going the way they are, they will eventually win it all and start their own tradition. They are simply too good to not win. The first one is the hardest. Many more will come after that.

Drury, the English master, put it best:

“The night of the Real resurrection,” he exclaimed. “The pure white shirts have shimmered spectacularly once again and Real Madrid are Paris bound.

“Real Madrid will play the big game again, the love affair goes on. Improbably, miraculously, impossibly, beyond their dreams, their expectations and Pep does not know where to look. For the 17th time, the club of glitz and legend will go to the final of the European Cup. Blink it back, 6-5.”

The final pits Real Madrid versus Liverpool in a rematch of their 2018 Final that Real won. It should be a great match. It’s a real shame that it won’t be played across two legs.  It would be a much grander affair. I believe Sir Charles Dickens would agree.

PS:

Since their defeat City have been on a tear in the EPL, winning two lopsided game as they attempt to secure the only trophy within reach now, the league championship. More importantly, they announced the signing of Erling Haaland for £51.1m. This could very easily be the last piece the club need to finally bag the Champions League for next year. I’ve said all along that City lacked a true #9. They just got arguably the best young striker in football today.

References:

[1] https://www.uefa.com/uefachampionsleague/history/clubs/52919–man-city/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_Madrid_CF_in_international_football

[3] https://www.dailystar.co.uk/sport/football/peter-drury-city-real-madrid-26878476

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panenka_(penalty_kick)

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/10/erling-haaland-man-city-confirm-deal-to-sign-borussia-dortmund-striker.html

Man City – Chelsea Report

Man City and Chelsea square off for the Champions League title, the first Champions League game to have fans during the pandemic. Chelsea has had City’s number the last two games, beating them 2-1 in a league game and also 1-0 to eliminate City in the FA Cup.

By eliminating City in the FA Cup, they denied City the chance to win 4 trophies this year. Pep Guardiola’s team has already won the EPL title and the Carabao Cup (a 2-1 win over Tottenham). Now the Blues stand in the way of the the title City, and Guardiola, covet the most, the Champions League Trophy. By winning it, City would become only the seventh team to pull off this feat, and it would give them bragging right over their city rivals Manchester United, who pulled off this incredible feat in 1999.

First Half

7′ Ederson 60 yard pass to Sterling, who can’t quite control it and Reece James recovers

9′ Werner mishits a cross into the box

10′ Sterling sprints down the left flank, his second 40m sprint in less than 5 minutes.

14′ Werner has another chance but can’t hit the shot with power or direction and it goes directly to Ederson who make easy save. Less than a minute later, has another mano a mano with Ruben Diaz but hits side netting with his shot.

15′ DeBruyne streaming down right side and gets stopped by Kante.

In the first 15 minutes Chelsea has come out to play and has had the better chances. They look like the better team and have had the clearer opportunities to score. Kante appears ethereal, he is everywhere, covering the entire pitch. Truly one of the best box to box midfielders in the world today.

27′ Raheem beats James again and James recovers again. What an individual duel this is turning out to be.

28′ Foden breaks in on goal after a quick City restart on a foul, three-toes the ball, but the masked Rudiker blocks a certain goal and it falls harmlessly into Mendy’s hand.

City wins the second round, dominating the second 15 minutes.

37′ Zinchenko stops Havertz cold as he cuts into the box hoping to make something happen. Thiago Silva goes out to injury and is replaced by Christensen. Bad break for Chelsea.

42′ Haverts receives a long diagonal pass from Mason Mount and breaks in on Ederson in a 1-1. Havertz cleverly touches the ball ahead and scores easily.

44′ Kante to Werner, who chest traps it but hurries his shot wide.

Second Half:

52′ Kante brilliant all-ball sliding tackle from behind do dispossess DeBruyne.

54′ R. Diaz sliding pass back to Ederson to disposses Werner and prevent a clear breakaway

56′ DeBruyne and Rudikker collide in the middle American football style. Unfortunately for City, Kevin is out of the game. Gabriel de Jesus comes in to play the real #9.

60′ Shot blocked by Reese. No PK awareded by ref nor VAR.

62′ Foden shot goes high.

64′ Fernardinho in for Silva. Pulisic in for Werner.

68′ Apilicueta breaks up cross destined to be a tap-in goal for City. What c have easily been an own goal is a brilliant save.

72′ Havertz and Pulisic work 1-2 down the field, but Christian misses his shot wide.

76′ Aguero comes in for Sterling. Sterling played great but Reese James got the better of him in the mano a mano.

85′ Aguero, after not having touched the ball, tries to chip the ball to Foden for an easy goal but Mendy gobbles it up easily.

89′ Chelsea, under fire, as City work the ball in and around, but City just can’t get clean shots.

96′ Mahrez shot floats tantalizingly close but eventually goes over the crossbar.

References:

Minnesota United Finds Its Stride

Reynoso, Dibassy, and Gregus celebrate the Loons’ third goal

The Minnesota United soccer team made their debut in MLS in a blizzard in March 2017. I was amongst the more than thirty-five thousand people that braved the miserable sub-freezing temperatures to see the return of professional soccer to the state of ten thousand lakes. The Loons could not take advantage of their home-field advantage and were trashed 6-1 by Atlanta United, the league’s other expansion franchise that year. This game had followed a beatdown 5-1 shellacking by Portland in the team’s inaugural game. It was an ignominious start. The rest of that year was brutal. A record of 10-6-18 with a staggering -26 goal differential.

Minnesota blitzed by Atlanta United in opener

Certainly as compared to the other expansion franchise, this was a harsh beginning. Atlanta went on to the playoffs that first year. Minnesota had a marginally better second year (11-3-20 and -22 GD) but it still finished towards the bottom of the Western Conference. They had finally signed their first Designated Player in Darwin Quintero, who had a remarkable season, but the team’s defense was still lousy. It didn’t help that the team still was playing in the University of Minnesota’s Gophers football stadium as its soccer specific stadium, Allianz Field, was still under construction. For the second year in a row, the Loons missed the playoffs while Atlanta won MLS Cup.

Fast forward to Season 4 and how things have changed. The contrast between the two franchises couldn’t be starker. It illustrates two competing philosophies for building a soccer franchise, one based on winning immediately versus one of building a foundation for the future. While Atlanta relied on a huge payroll advantage, elite players (they had two DP’s their first two years in Joseph Martinez and Miguel Almiron versus none for Minnesota), a stadium filled to near capacity of 80 thousand per game, and a world renowned coach in Tata Martinez, the Loons quietly built up their team with little known players and coaches. They built a foundation by spending wisely, drafting good young players out of college, and building a team with a defensive first philosophy in mind.

The architect of that plan has been the head coach and general manager Adrian Heath, who also coached the precursor franchise, the NASL’s Minnesota Thunder. After getting more control over roster decisions last year, he has made a number of roster moves to suit the kind of team that he has wanted on the field: a sound defensive team that is opportunistic when on offense, a team that lacks a true star but is evenly balanced throughout. This is a workmanlike team that is one of the best defensive teams in MLS.

In the middle of the summer, Heath pulled off his biggest move to date when he signed Emanuel Reynoso from Boca Juniors. Heath finally had himself a true number 10, a player able to dominate the game with his control and passing abilities. He may not be flashy like Quintero was, but he has been instrumental in making those around him much better. Reynoso’s ability to hold and find runners with exquisite passes have made Lod and Molino much more effective scorers than they were before his arrival.

In their fourth season, in the most difficult of circumstances operating in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, Minnesota’s model seems to have gained an advantage over Atlanta’s approach.

In the MLS is back restart tournament in July, the Loons were second in their group and got to the semi-finals before bowing out. Atlanta went 0-3 without scoring a goal.

Once the regular season resumed, the Loons once again made the playoffs by finishing in the top four of the West while Atlanta finished in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference. How the tables have turned !

In the 2020 playoffs, United got their first every victory by pounding Colorado 3-0. After withstanding an early Rapids offensive, Minnesota struck for two quick goals to take a 2-0 halftime lead, with Emanuel Reynoso getting the assist on both goals.

United gets first victory over Colorado

Heading into their quarter-final matchup game against Sporting KC, Minnesota had lost 6 straight games in Kansas City while being outscored 15-1. On a cool December night, the Loons absolutely killed Sporting KC 3-0 to reverse that streak. The Loons scored their trio in the last 20 minutes of the first half, completely against the run of play. In the first 25 minutes, it was Sporting that could easily been ahead by 2 or 3.

Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell had a chip cleared off the line by Boxall in the first 5 minutes. In the 15th, Dayne St. Clair somehow saved a ball that looked partly in. KC had other chances as well as they were in total control in the first 25 minutes.

Starting in the 27th, Minnesota started their full-frontal attack from which Sporting KC never recovered.  After a beautifully worked build-up play in the middle, Reynoso found a streaking Kevin Molino on the left hand-side. Molino marched in all alone against Tim Melia for the first goal. In the 35th, the same pair struck again. Reynoso chipped a beautifully weighted pass to Molino, who once again found himself all alone agains the KC keeper. Molino didn’t have to dribble this time as he hit it first time beating Melia on the left post. Reynoso finished his 3 assist night just two minutes later with a corner kick that found Bakaye Dibassy’s head for a powerful header to make it 3-0 and essentially finish off the game.

It was the second straight 3-0 victory for a team that hadn’t won a playoff game in their franchise history. It was the second straight 3 assist game for Reynoso and second straight two goal game for Molino.

United Thrash Sporting KC

The precursor franchise to Minnesota United, the Minnesota Thunder, had a dynamic duo called Batman and Superman (Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra). Both started and played in the MLS first two years but are now long gone. The 4th year version of the franchise has found a better pairing with Reynoso and Molino, a more gifted and more talented pair who, liked their predecessors, have found an alchemy between them that has been hard for defenses to stop.

This was not just a statement game, it was was Minnesota United’s most important victory in their 4 years in MLS. The Loons now play the Seattle Sounders for the Western Conference championship. It will be a match of one of the best franchises in MLS for the past 5 years against an upstart ready to knock off the kings from the West Coast. Ozzie Alonso, the Loons defensive midfielder, is going back to the city where he plied his trade for 9 years before being traded to Minnesota.

Seattle won MLS cup last year and have been playoff contenders for what

feels like forever. But Seattle will not have their fans in the seats. They will not have their traditional huge home field advantage. To me, it feels like a changing of the guard. I wouldn’t bet against The Loons.

Soccer in times of Covid19

One of the victims of Covid-19 has been the suspension of sports throughout the world. Most major sports leagues shut down in order to limit the spread of the disease since spread of the virus flourished in large gatherings of people. When health organizations began limiting the number of congregations, the sporting world was one of the first industries to start shutting down. This wasn’t limited to professional sports either as youth sporting activities also shut down.The effect was immediate. Entire sporting rituals were suspended overnight.  MLS managed to play play a couple of games before the suspension. Minnesota United had the best start of its short history in the MLS by winning their first two road games. The NBA suspended operations a bit later after several of their players tested positive. By mid March, the EPL suspended operations and was soon followed by all major European soccer leagues. Also in mid-March, the Gophers men’s basketball team won their first game of the Big Ten tournament and then the entire competition was shuttered the following day. Inevitably, March Madness, the start of MLB, and the NHL playoffs were all stopped cold. For a while, Liga MX continued operation before it too succumbed to the virus.

Sports persisted in cold storage for about three months before officials figured out when and how they would reopen. Testing had to improve so it could be done more effectively and with more timely results, protocols had to be developed to ensure the safety of the athletes, trainers, and coaches, and most importantly, the number of infections had to be reduced (now colloquially known as the flattening of the curve) before government officials throughout the world decided that it was safe to resume sporting competitions. One thing that would become evident pretty much more the beginning was that sports would resume without allowing any fans in the stadiums. The sporting spectacle, as we had become accustomed to, would not be the same again until the pandemic was conquered for good.

The sporting industry, both on the professional and youth levels, have become so big that they faced many of the same challenges to reopen as other businesses, trying to maintain a delicate balancing act between opening too soon and risking public health, and opening too late and losing more money and possible financial ruin.

Billions of dollars were lost in the 3 months of the shutdown. It is estimated that the cancellation of March Madness cost the NCAA more than one billion dollars in revenue plus hundreds of millions more lost by cities hosting the events generated by the thousands of fans that flock to the games.

The English Premier stood to lose $1.25 billion if the league couldn’t complete the season. La Liga $800m. The Bundesliga $700m. Seria A between $650-$700 million. The EPL approved a  $125 million pound grant to help clubs through the shutdown. It’s estimated that Manchester United lost approximately $3m pounds of revenue per match. These are only estimates. The true loss of revenue would not be known until the end of the season, however that would be accomplished.

For some sports, the “too big to fail” label would certainly apply. This would cause a huge amount of pressure to reopen. I believe this was the case of worldwide soccer and NBA basketball.

In Europe, where the spread of the virus was more effectively contained than in the United States, soccer started back up in the early June timeframe. Games were played in empty stadiums (only the players, staff, and TV personnel were allowed in). The EPL reopened June 13. La Liga June 7, Serie A June 13, The Bundesliga on May 13th.  Just as the rest of society had also started a reopening as well, it was deemed to restart sports as well.

In the United States by contrast, MLS decided to restart with a World Cup style tournament in early July in Orlando Florida. All teams would stay in a “bubble” in one of the Disney resorts and all games would be played in two adjacent fields with no fans present. At the time of the reopening, Florida was a major hotspot of corona virus infections, with cases growing exponentially. At one point, the infection rate in Florida was a staggering 25% of all cases tested. While Europe got the opening right, the United States bungled through it (as we had with all aspects of managing the pandemic).

MLB restarted in mid-July. The NBA set its restart at the end of July. Hockey set its restart for early August. For all sports except baseball, this suspension marked a weird inversion of their calendars. We are just no used to having basketball and hockey played in the dog days of summer. The pandemic turned the entire world upside down including the familiar sports calendar.

English Premier League: Project Restart

Three months after suspending league play, the English Premier League (EPL) restarted on June 28 with 92 matches crammed into a 40 day period (fixture congestion indeed). Games were played at empty stadiums and each team was allowed 5 substitutes per match. One water break was added per half to compensate for playing in the hot humid summer months. 

Stadium seating was covered with gigantic tarps adorned with home team insignia. The camouflage tarps helped by adding color to what otherwise would have been empty seats. It added the appearance of occupancy when in reality it was only the teams’ personnel and TV crews that attended. On some grounds,  the tarps had giant images of peoples faces to give the illusion that fans were actually present. The camera work focused mostly on the playing field so that it was not so apparent that actual fans were missing. That only became obvious from the low angle camera shots, such as on corner kicks or throw ins. If one concentrated hard enough, watching the EPL restart games was almost like watching the real thing. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EPL restart was the decision to include pre-recorded fan noise. The fan noise infused the telecast with a dosis of reality; it made the the spectacle more proximate to what  we are used to watching. It wasn’t perfect, but it was by far the best of the viewing experiences from Europe. Games telecast from Italy and Germany didn’t feature the noise and they were just not nearly as enjoyable as the EPL games.

The game schedule was intense. Games came rapid-fire, every day rather than concentrated on the weekends. Each team ended up playing every three or four days. After a couple of weeks, the level of play improved dramatically and moved back into mid-season form. The EPL is a highly technical, physical, and competitive league. On any given year, there are a realistically between 4-6 teams that can win the league title (unlike the monopoly that exists in the Bundesliga or La Liga). The middle of the pack teams can win on any given match. The bottom of the table teams mostly struggle against the giants over the course of a long season, but the possibility of upsets in any given match infuses the league with added drama, especially when the top teams lose out no the prizes such as qualifications European competition such as the Champions League or Europa League play.

The Covid-19 product did not disappoint. Games were enjoyable to watch even with empty stadiums. The drama of who would win the league was absent since Liverpool had amassed such an insurmountable lead, but there was always the race for the top 4 spots for Champions League, the next two for Europa. At the bottom, the aforementioned drama to avoid relegation gives the Premiership three different races to focus on instead of only deciding a champion.

Liverpool had such a huge lead (it had only dropped points once all season!) and it won the league for the first time in 30 years in record setting fashion by clinching its triumph with 6 games to play, the earliest any team had won in the history of the league. LFC also won 18 games in a row and 23 games at home., and amassed the most points at home with 55, an EPL record. After winning the league, Liverpool was essentially competing to win league records.

Besides games that decided the league champion, there were games that determined the fate of the teams at the bottom, the relegation battles are actually much more interesting because they can make or break clubs for years if not decades. (For a recent example of this, see my write up on the Netflix reality show Sunderland ’Til I Die, which chronicles the relegation — twice — of Sunderland from the EPL to the Championship and then again to League One.) For these clubs, the ability to stay in the EPL has impactful financial repercussions making the stakes in the games that much more significant. The reactions of the fans and the emotions they feel are indicative of how important the club and its success is to the livelihood of these people.

Bournemouth’s Struggle

On July 12, Bournemouth was playing Tottenham in a crucial game that felt like it was a must win (the team wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated if it lost or tied but it sure feels that way). Sitting at the top of the bottom third, and three points below the relegation zone, Bournemouth scored what appeared to be a game winning, and EPL saving, goal in the 91st minute off of an overhead scissors kick. The goal was reviewed by VAR because it appeared that the ball was directed into the net by the hand of another Bournemouth forward who was closer to the goal than the player who kicked it. After a lengthy and anxious review, the goal was disallowed. Bournemouth had another golden chance minutes later when one of their young players was a fed a pass and had a a 1-1 vs Tottenham’s French keeper Hugo Lloris in the open field. Lloris, one of the best keepers in the world, closed the gap and got enough of a hand on it to deflect it to safety. Another golden chance was blown. Another chance to stay in the top tier possibly blown.

Bournemouth suffered another defeat a week later, this time against Southampton. And again VAR reared its ugly head as a late Bournemouth equalizer was reviewed and annulled. Several minutes later, Southampton scored a second goal to seal Bournemouth’s fate in the game; the club’s chances of staying in the Premier League would now come down to having to win their final game at Everton and hoping that West Ham could beat Aston Villa.

Bournemouth was living and suffering the same drama that was so aptly captured in the Sunderland Netflix show. As the final day of the season loomed, Bournemouth still had a chance to stay in the Premier with a win but they would need help from West Ham. A win by the Hammer against Aston Villa would mean Bournemouth would stay and Aston Villa would go down to the Championship.

(The drama that unfolds late in the season, both at the top and the bottom is what makes the European leagues so special. Leagues like MLS which don’t feature promotion and relegation lack that competitiveness in games played out to decide the fate of the teams at the bottom of the table.)

Championship Sunday

The table was thus set for a dramatic final Sunday on July 26, called Championship Sunday. All games are played simultaneously to avoid any kind of sporting impropriety. At stake where two of the top 4 spots (for Champions League), and the last relegation spot.

At the top of the table, Manchester United played Leicester City in a Champions League playoff game with the winner taking the final Top 4 spot. United, who had suffered some bad seasons after their legendary manager Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013, had made a remarkable recovery during the restart, winning 6 and tying 3 games. In overtaking Leicester, they had overcome a 14 point deficit to the Foxes since January.

Chelsea beat Wolves 2-0 to clinch 3rd place in the league. Under rookie coach Frank Lampard, the Blues, spearheaded by American Christian Pulisic, won five of their last 9 games to cement their place back in the Top four of English football. Pulisic, who started the season slowly (mostly due to a groin injury), had a fantastic restart and ended up the season with 9 goals and 4 assists. His fearless runs pierced unsuspecting defenses. When he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up teammates or drawing penalties. Pulisic really strutted his stuff for Chelsea and gives them hope to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City at the top the next season.

Speaking of Manchester City, another season of excellence ended with them in second place. They still tallied 85 points, but due to Liverpool’s ridiculous run, this wasn’t nearly enough for City to claim their third consecutive championship. But Pep Guardiola still has most of him top talent returning (except for David Silva, whose ten year of excellence ends), which will make City a team to fear for years. And with the UEFA’s two-year suspension lifted, City can still try to claim it’s the best club in the world by winning that competition.

At the bottom, Bournemouth took care of business by beating Everton 3-1. But when Aston Villa went up 1-0 on the Hammers in the 84th minute, it looked like all hope was lost for the Cherries. West Ham equalized nary a minute later and the teeter-totter was in full swing again as Bournemouth still could hope that West Ham could rescue them from relegation with a miracle last minute strike. That never materialized as the Hammers never got near the goal again. The result doomed Bournemouth to the second division of English football.

The celebration at the end of the Villa West Ham game was momentous. Both clubs celebrated in the middle of the field together. They patted themselves in the back and shouted into the air. They danced and shouted as if, somehow, they both had just won a title themselves. In a way, they had. They had both survived atop the best football league in the world.

Madness in Final Group Match Day

Group B – Iberian Shift

Group B was not supposed to elicit much drama. Spain and Portugal were both considered the overwhelming favorites. Iran and Morocco were simply there to fill out the group. The Iberian Darby in the second day of the tournament had the ear markings of a semi-final or even a final. That game was supposed to be the highlight of the group.

The 3-3 draw between the two giants provided fireworks as promised. But they didn’t compare to to what happened in the final 10 minutes of the last group game, especially since both games were being played simultaneously.  Coming into the last game, Iran harbored the possibility of advancing to the next round if it beat Portugal. Spain had to also play for at least a tie to make sure it could get through in the event of a Portugal win or draw.

Morocco entered the game being mathematically eliminated and played very loose and took the game to the Spanish. A sloppy exchange between Iniesta and Ramos near midfield allowed Morocco’s Khalid Boutaib to steal the ball and dribble unimpeded 1-1 vs DeGea. He cooly slotted the ball into the corner of the goal for a suprising 1-0 lead. Spain responded quickly five minutes later when Isco scored from inside the goalie box after a typical well worked Spanish play.  But late in the game, Youseff El-Nessri outjumped Sergio Ramos and hit a thundering header to put Moroccco up 2-1.

Meanwhile, in the other game, Portugal held a tenuous 1-0 lead until late on a beautiful goal by Ricardo Quaresma. Ronaldo missed a penalty that would have sealed Portugal passage into the next round as the group winner.  In stoppage time, Iran was awarded a controversial penalty kick by VAR, when the replay officials judged that the Iranian’s player header had struck the Spanish defenders hand in the box. Iran’s Karim Ansarifard hit a ball high into the right corner of the net to make the score 1-1. Iran still needed a win to advance because despite having the same number of points as Spain, they had a worse goal differential. In the 94th minute, Iran got a chance to win the game, but a volley struck the side netting. As it stood, it was Portugal #1, Spain #2 in the group.

spain_mor_goal_2

Back in the Spain-Morocco game, Spain scored an equalizing goal that was heavily also heavy reviewed by the VAR system, which judged that Spain’s Iago Aspas had not been offside as he flicked a cross from a corner kick into the goal.  With both ties, the positions flipped. It was now Spain #1 and Portugal #2.

The significance of that was that Spain will now face an easier path into the quarterfinals, having to play Russia, and the winner of Croatia vs. Denmark/Australia. On the flip-side, Portugal must now go through Uruguay in the Round of 16.

Drama indeed.

Group D – Argentina beat Nigeria (again)

Argentina and Nigeria have been paired 5 times before in the same group. And every time, Argentina have never lost to Argentina. Argentina and Nigeria met again and played a final match in which Argentina had to win to advance (Nigeria could do so with a tie). Messi finally got a goal in the first half thad had Argentina into the next round. Then, in the 56th minute, Nigeria got the equalizer on a penalty kick by Victor Moses that put them back through. The PK came after a lengthy VAR review in which it was ruled that Javier Mascherano had fouled Leon Balogun inside the area.

With time running out on Argentina, Marcos Rojo, an unlikely hero scored on an impressive right footed volley off a cross that went pass the Nigerian keeper. After the goal, Messi rode on Rojo’s back during the celebration. In the stands, a visibly relieved Diego Armando Maradona, kissed a fellow fan before showing the middle finger and proclaiming the P word that the Mexican fans have been fined for to the Nigerian team. (He has been subsequently fined by  FIFA for this gesture.)

This time, after the victory, Messi and the rest of the Argentinian team, stayed a long time on the pitch, visibly relieved to have moved on despite a very poor group performance.

Group F – Mexico falters but backs in after shocker of the Cup

The final day of Group F play was as dramatic as it gets. As Mexico was losing 3-0 to Sweden late, I was certain that Germany would score the winning goal against South Korea that would put them into the next phase and Mexico would be eliminated. It is what you come to expect from the defending and four-time world champions.

But unanticipated events unfolded in Kazan. With Germany pressing for the goal that would get them through, they had some defending to do against a Korean side determined to play the spoiler role. While defending a South Korean attack, Tony Kroos, the hero of the Sweden game, attempted a pass out of trouble in his own zone, and when his errant pass nutmegged his own teammate, it fell straight to Kim Young-Gwon who kept his composure in front of the imposing Manuel Neuer, took a slight touch and roofed the ball into the right side of the net. After a VAR review, that goal was rescuing Mexico as Germany would now need to score two in the final 3 minutes to advance.

Now Germany needed two goals and it inexplicably put Manuel Neuer on the left wing instead of in his customary sweeper keeper position. Neuer gave the ball away rather easily, and after a 60 yard clearance by the Koreans, Son Heung-Min outraced the final defender to the ball and tapped it in for the second goal.  Why Neuer was so hopelessly out of position I will never know. It almost looked like a futsal flykeeper who gets put well into the opponent’s half.

Mexican fans mobbed South Korean fans all over Russia as their team had just allowed Mexico go to through. Their prize: they will play Brazil in the Round of 16.

High Drama in Group F

The conventional wisdom in tournament group play is that if a team wins two games, it either moves on automatically or is in a very good position to advance to the next round.  This is the situation that Mexico find itself in in Group F.

After Mexico dispatched South Korea 2-1 in their second group phase game put Mexico on the verge of qualification. All it needed to ensure this was Sweden to beat or tie Germany.  The Mexican’s automatic qualification was thrown into disarray when Tony Kroos executed a magnificent free kick in the 95th minute of the Germany-Sweden match. Just seconds before that kick, with the game tied at 1, Germany, the defending champion and current co-favorite to win the tournament, were essentially all but out.  But an errant and unnecessary tackle at the edge of the box by the Sweden defender (replays show two other Swedish defenders within range so it was essentially a 1-3 situation for the attacking German player) set the stage for Kroos’ high drama. Realizing that the angle for the kick was very tight, Kroos and Reus discussed the strategy. In the resulting kick, Kroos rolled the ball a yard to Reus, who simply stopped the ball and lifted his foot off. Kroos struck a curving ball that eluded two Swedish defenders before arcing into the corner of the goal, just past the Swedish goalkeeper.

Just like that Germany was still in play and Mexico’s automatic ticket to the second round was in doubt.

One devilish scenario for Mexico looms. If Sweden beat Mexico 2-0 and Germany beat South Korea by an identical scoreline, Germany and Sweden would advance by virtue of better goal differential. It’s not an incompletely unthinkable scenario. I would bank on Germany’s victory as they are now full of confident after coming back from the brink. They are, after all, the world champions and traditionally one of the most resolute teams psychologically.

Sweden, on the other hand, have got to be exhausted, both physically and emotionally, after that draining loss. They gave it their all and almost knocked Germany out, but in the end succumbed to the Kroos sucker punch that very well may have eliminated them. Mexico will be a tough matchup for them. Anything’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it given how well Mexico has played so far.

Messi’s Fate ?

 

How to explain the awful and uninspired performance by Argentina, one of the favorites to win  this World Cup ? Argentina tied Iceland 1-1 and then was clobbered by Croatia 3-0. It now finds itself needing a victory over Nigeria to barely eek out of this group in second place, eerily similar to the situation it did before the final game of CONMEBOL qualifying, where it needed to beat Ecuador to avoid the relegation playoff.

Argentina started this World Cup with a bang. Against Iceland, Sergio Aguero scored in the 19th minute. The common belief was that Argentina could now coast to victory because Iceland would have to chase an equalizer goal, a style of game it isn’t suited to play. The Vikings like to score and then defend their field for long periods of time. Argentina, on the other hand, buttressed by the early goal, could take advantage of Iceland’s advance and score more goals.  Argentina is a team that, given the talent they have, should be able to tactically adapt to any situation. But when a defensive lapse allowed Iceland to tie the game at 1 just 4 minutes later, the tactics of the game were reset. Argentina were now forced to again possess the ball and try to score while Iceland simply parked the bus and hoped for a counter-attack. And possess the ball Argentina did (by a whopping 73% to 27%). Maybe the most lopsided statistic was the number of completed passes: 718 for Argentina to Iceland’s 189.  

This massive statistical advantage didn’t result in any additional goals however. Argentina were unimaginative and predictable in their buildup and approach. On corner kicks, they never attempted any variant (a short kick to Messi to dribble into the box, a short kick to cross into the box); on free kicks, it was always Messi over the ball and no-one else. There was no trickery, no wrinkles, just Messi. Even on Messi’s penalty kick, he executed exactly as he does on the Pepsi blue paint ball commercial, lightly and to his left.  Never has a team with that much possession done so little.

Parking the bus is a tactic that allows Iceland’s to freeze a game that would make the most ardent proponents of the Italian Catenaccio proud. Against this Argentinian team, they never really seemed that hard pressed to lock the opposition down.  Sure Iceland couldn’t ever possess the ball or do anything with it when they did, but the key is they never allowed Argentina to score again.

Against Croatia, Argentina was further exposed, especially on defense.  Caballero, the backup goalkeeper on the national team and at his club side Chelsea, made a horrible pass early on that essentially gifted Croatia an early goal when Ante Rebic pounced on the ball and hit a nice volley over the hapless goalie.  In the 80th minute, it was Real Madrid’s Luka Modric’s who hit a strike from outside the box after beating two Argentinian defenders. Ivan Rakitic, Messi’s Barcelona teammate, sealed the deal with a beautiful goal late in the game as the Argentinian defense was shredded to pieces attempting to step forward to cause an offside trap. Instead, Rakitic scored a third goal which now put Argentina on the edge of disqualification.

Messi has been there before and has come through. But the expression of disbelief after the Iceland game was matched only by his disturbing body language during the anthem before the Croatia game. Something seems amiss with Leo. He’s not playing up his level and Argentina only seems to play as well as their superstar does.

I wouldn’t count him out (Argentina has never lost to Nigeria in 5 group stage matches and it is Messi after all). Argentina has vowed to fight “until the final minute.” But even if Messi pulls Argentina out of this mess again, they’re likely to succumb soon thereafter in the knock-out phase.

Spain 3 – Portugal 3

 

The Iberian Darby was a thrilling game worthy of a final. Instead it was the first game for both of these continental powers, and it got the World Cup off to a riveting start.

The best team of the early 2010’s vs the best player of the last three years was exactly how this game played out. Spain’s Diego Costa netted two goals and Nacho hit a screaming line drive which already has to be candidate for goal of the Cup. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo scored all three of Portugal’s goals: one on penalty, one on a low shot that DeGea muffed, and one on a glorious free kick at the end of regulation (also candidate for top goal).

The dramatic game was played end-to-end with numerous lead changes. It was probably fair that it ended 3-3 as it won’t matter since both teams are going through to the next stage anyway. At this point, only positioning as 1 or 2 in the group needs to be finalized. Spain exhibited its version of the beautiful game — tiki-taka passing plus majestic tactical organization — and it was not affected by the sacking of its manager Lopetegui. Fernando Hierro was a natural as the last minute substitute coach. If you don’t follower soccer, you would not have noticed that he had just been put on the job 48 hours before kickoff.

Is there any doubt now that Ronaldo has eclipsed Lionel Messi as the world’s greatest player ? He just scored three goals in one game to add onto his 3 consecutive Champions League titles.

He is in such incredible form that he may be able to lead his team and get the only trophy missing from his trophy case.  I wouldn’t completely rule that out at this point.

Mexico 1 – Germany 0

ochoas_amazing_save_mex_germany
Mexico’s goalie Memo Ochoa saves Kroos’ direct free kick

Germany has been Mexico’s nemesis for over three decades now, going way back to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Before their first-round game, Mexico had not beaten the unified German team (the last victory being a friendly over West Germany). On June 17th, 2018, Mexico finally made history knocking off the defending champions and number one ranked team in the world.

Mexico surprised Germany by its aggressive approach early. They advanced into the German area early and often in the first 15 minutes, forcing the German defense and keeper into numerous saves. In the 35th minute, just as Germany had begun possessing more of the ball, Mexico converted a German turnover into a full out break. Chicharito received the ball at half and made a quick pass to his right to Guardado, who passed it right back to Chicharito on a class give and go. Chicharito then dribbled forward at full speed before laying off a pass on the left wing to Hirving “El Chucky” Lozano. Lozano dribbled into the box and then cut the ball back to his right, eluding a trailing Mehmet Ozil before smashing the ball past Neuer just inside the left post.

The key to the play was that Lozano outsprinted Ozil, racing from deep inside his own zone.  The Germans are a very disciplined team tactically, and rarely do they get exploited down the flanks. And even more hrarely do they get outworked. Most teams don’t take those chances because they then leave huge openings in their the back that the Germand take advantage of. But the fact is that in this play, Germany was exposed because Lozano simply outworked Ozil, who was left scrambling to catch up.

This play was emblematic of the entire tactical approach in this game. After recovering the ball, Mexico attacked as quickly as possible by outrunning the German midfield and defensive in order to apply maximum offensive pressure.

Germany’s coach Joachim Low plan was to double team players like Lozano as they made their runs forward into the offensive end. They knew that Mexico would make quick transitions but they were too slow to execute the defensive strategy.

But Mexico’s true hero had to be goalkeeper Ochoa, who frustrated the Germans the entire game. Shortly after Mexico’s goal, Ochoa saved a sure goal when he directed a free kick from Kroos into the cross-bar. It was simply an amazing save. And it was one of many. Mexico retreated to a more defensive posture in the second half and let Germany attack. The Germans ended with a 61-39% advantage in possession but Ochoa negated that by making 9 saves.

Juan Carlos Osorio, the coach Mexicans call “The Professor”, summed up his philosophical approach to this game: “The phrase was to play for the love of winning, not the fear of losing,” Osorio said after the game. “We were brave, and defended with our hearts.”