Champions League: Real Madrid conquers Liverpool again

The Merengues team beat the Reds for the 7th straight time in Champions League

How else to describe Real Madrid’s utter dismantling of Liverpool (at Anfield no less) and continuing domination of the Reds than to resort to two well worn soccer cliches: a) The 2-0 lead is the most dangerous in football and b) it’s not how you start the game but how you finish that counts.

Liverpool started off to a flying start, deploying their customary and speedy high press. Minutes into the game, as Liverpool’s forward Dario Nunez made a diagonal run in the box, and a microsecond before the ball arrived, he lept into the air pushing off of his left leg before flicking Mo Salah’s cross elegantly with his trailing right foot. The cheeky finish skipped past a stunned Courtois for the 1-0 lead. Before the 15 minute mark, the usually unflappable Courtois made an unaccustomed gaffe while handling a back pass. As he tried to control the high bouncing ball, it went off of his knee straight to the onrushing Salah, who made no mistake and fired it past Courtois for the 2-0 goal lead.

Liverpool had their flying start. The fans at the KOP were fired up. Surely this was the beginning that coach Jurgen Klopp had hoped for.

But what makes Real Madrid the great club that it is, the club that has won the most European championship trophies of all time (20 including 14 Champions), the most trophies of all time (97), is their utter unflappability. This is a team that is not faced by a deficit of any kind, at any stage. The most recent evidence of that resiliency was their comeback against Manchester City in last year’s semi-finals, when they overcame an early deficit to City in the first leg to crawl back within one goal before finishing off Pep’s fine team in the second leg.

Vinicius Jr. celebrates his first goal.

On this night they were playing with heavy hearts as one of the club’s greats,Amancio, had passed on the day previous to the match. After a one minute of silence observance before kickoff, the Merengues did not appear to be fully concentrated on the game at hand. But all of that changed once they started to get possession, once Liverpool handed them the ball, seemingly content with the 2-0 lead (see point a) above). In the 21s minute Vinny “Flash” Jr. scored against his Brazilian teammate Alison with a beautiful curling shot to the far post. Taking the ball on the left, Vinny used his signature exquisite control and explosiveness to free himself from multiple defenders in a tight space at the corner of the box before unleashing the kick that would spark the comeback. Vinny created the yard of space seemingly out of nothing and that’s all this incredible player ever needs.

Liverpool, still in the game, almost scored five minutes later but Darwin Nunez was denied at the goal line by Carvajal. A couple of moments later, Vinny almost scored from the same place as his first goal, but this time Alison made a fine diving save to deny his countryman.

Fifteen minutes later, Vinny would again score off of a mistake by Alison. Fielding a back pass and also feeling the pressure from his fellow Brazilian Vinicius, Alison opted for a hard clearance to the right straight into the path of the pressing Real Madrid player instead of either cutting the ball back hard to his left (where he would have easily faked out Vinicius, who had turned his back) or simply booting it hard to his left.  Instead the poorly kicked clearance bounced off of Viny’s leg and straight into the goal for the 2-2 tie. Jurgen Klopp could be seen clapping, as if urging his team to not lose its head, still enthusiastic about his team’s chances.

Madrid almost made it 3-2 at the stroke of halftime with Courtois throwing a 40 yard pass to Valverde who found Vinicius who crossed into Rodrygo. Only Andy Robertson’s fine diving clearance saved the day. The play was indicative of Madrid’s never say die attitude and also of their willingness to stick a dagger into an opponent at any point in the game. Having come back from down 0-2 to tie the game, a third goal at the end of the half would have been devastating to Liverpool. That, unfortunately for the Liverpool faithful, would occur sooner than they would have hoped.

If Liverpool had the dream start at the beginning of the game, Madrid turned the tables in the second half. The Merengues won a free kick from the left-edge of the box in the 47th minute and as Modric stood poised to take it, Eder Militao ran across the goalie box and met Luka‘s perfectly placed kick. Not a single Liverpool defender tracked him and Militao was left all alone to drill the ball powerfully into the back of the net. As the Madrid players celebrated in utter jubilation by the corner flag, the Liverpool players looked on the scene stunned. Alison and van Dijk had a look of incredulity. Klopp was no longer clapping; he just looked nervous and worried.

Just 8 minutes later, Real Madrid recovered the ball at the edge of Liverpool’s box. Benzema and Vinicius worked a beautiful 1-2 in a tight space. As Benzema received the return pass he fired a shot that deflected off of Joe Gomez and into the back of the net. In the 67th minute, after an errant pass in the midfield, Modric picked off the ball and dribbled the ball upfield at high speed, eluding and shaking off would-be defenders before passing it ahead to Vinicius, who after attracting two defenders, pushed it ahead to Benzema. The Frenchman coolly eluded the onrushing Alison and placed the ball into the back of the net for the Merengue’s fifth unanswered goal.

One final observation of this play is warranted. Liverpool’s 18 year old midfielder, Stefan Bajčetić, was victimized on this play by Modric. To Bajčetić’s defense, he didn’t lose the ball in midfield to Modric (that was Fabhino), but it was him who had the enviable job of trying to stop the player who is almost 20 years his senior. Unable to stop him in mid-run (Modric shook him off like an American Football running back using a stiff-arm), he trailed the play for a bit as the other Liverpool defenders were mesmerized by the passing and movement of Real’s troika but after all of the work he had put in the game, he gave up on the play at the very end. He could have tried to stop Benzema but he simply watched as Karem finished the play. I’m sure this will not go unnoticed by Klopp, but the young Bajčetić is the least likely player to shoulder blame. Gomez, Fabinho and van Dijk also had terrible performances.

Liverpool’s defense looked haphazard and disorganized the entire second half, as if they were chasing shadows in white shirts. At the end, when Benzema’s shot had struck the back of the net, Liverpool’s players looked on helplessly and with the knowledge that their Champion’s League run had ended on this night after being vanquished by the winningest soccer club team of all time.


Real Madrid has won 7 straight UCL games against Liverpool, dating back to 2014. This includes two UCL finals.

On paper, Real Madrid is the the team with the most trophies ever (see the reference below), but in my opinion, they are not the greatest club of all time. That distinction belongs to Barcelona. The reasons why I believe this will be addressed in a future post.


WC 2022 Final: Argentina 3 (4) – France 3 (2)

Messi finally wins his World Cup

Celebration in Buenos Aires

On the stage in the middle of the field of the golden Lusail stadium, Argentina’s Lionel Andres Messi finally lifted his first World Cup, the only trophy to have eluded him in his long and glorious career. Throughout this tournament, Messi played the best football of his life. The game was his crowning achievement. The numerous youth games that his grandmother took him to,  hundreds of games with Barcelona, the couple of seasons at Paris St. Germain, all of the international matches, had prepared him to be able to perform at the highest level in soccer’s most important competition.

For the final celebration, the lifting of the Jules Rimet Trophy, in the middle with all his teammates, Messi wore a bisht, a traditional Arab robe that was given to him by the Qatari Emir. The bisht is made of camel hair and goat fur and is given to those as a high sign of respect in the Arabic culture. As he has proven throughout his career, and finally capped off with a World Cup triumph, Messi can no longer be denied the title as the greatest soccer player ever to play the game.

Messi hoists the World Cup Trophy

As if everything he had already accomplished wasn’t enough: all of those Champions Leagues, La Liga titles and cups, multiple Ballon D’Ors, the Copa America, all of the wonderful and magical goals. The World Cup was missing from his trophy case. His nearly 20 year professional run is unmatched. With that void filled, is it fair to speculate that this man’s career may never be duplicated ?

The championship game in which Messi emerged triumphant was a glorious spectacle. Championship games are supposed to be competitive, back and forth affairs, featuring multiple lead changes, drama aplenty. But they don’t often deliver on that promise. This one did, it lived up to the hype, the battle of the two superstar club teammates, and in the end it wasn’t decided until the very last kick.

For the first 70 minutes, Argentina were in complete control. From the offset they were the more aggressive team, firmly planted on the ground, willing to attack France and deny them any opportunities to do the same. The incessant approaches finally paid fruit in the 21st minute as Angel DiMaria, who had made various incursions on the left flank, got Dembele to bite on a fake to the end-line and cut the ball back and then penetrated into the box. Once past Dembele, two French defenders awaited DiMaria’s approach. Dembele’s unnecessary if slight push from behind drew a penalty. Messi calmly converted the PK (his fifth of six in the Cup) and Argentina were off to a flying start.

France attempted to respond but made few incursions into the Argentinian zone. The game reverted to form as Argentina continued their dominance. The French, a team who doesn’t usually press high, attempted to do so in the 35th minute and forced a turnover. On the throw-in, Mbappe took it out of the air and accelerated into the box, but the ball got away from him a bit and Nahuel Molina tapped it back to Argentinas keeper Emiliano Martinez.

In the subsequent sequence,  Argentina struck again on a classically constructed counter attack. Argentina’s center back Romero intercepted a French pass and passed it ahead to Mac Allister, who quickly one touched it to Messi and then started a sprint up the field. Messi had drifted back slightly in his inimitable slow trot to his own half just below the center circle. As he received the ball, Messi quickly popped the ball up and then, in one motion, flicked a pass to Julian Alvarez with the same foot to the right wing. Alvarez took one short dribble and slotted it forward to the streaking Mac Allister. Mac Allister’s dribble took him wide to the right away from the French goal and had the effect of both penetrating into the French zone and attracting two defenders to him. His subsequent no-look cross found Angel Di Maria all alone to Lloris’ right. DiMaria first-timed the ball into the ground and that slight bounce eluded the French goalie’s left leg. It’s interesting to note that the two forwards initiated this play in their own half, far away from goal, and a defensive midfielder and winger finished it off. This inverted offensive attack was proof of the talent and ability of the Argentinian team at all positions. It also proved that Messi, as the initial creator of the play, can be lethal from anywhere on the field.

Argentina’s beautiful team goal (5 passes, 6 players) spanned 90 yards and took less than 10 seconds. It’s hard to pinpoint which of the elements of this counter are more aesthetically beautiful: Mac Allister’s pass and sprint forward, Messi’s delicious popup and flick, Mac Allister’s no-look pass, or DiMaria’s bounce shot. Four brilliant but connected individual plays. It’s as if this play was designed specifically to beat the French defense and each Argentinian player knew exactly what to do and when to do it.

To quote Norberto Longo, who served as the color commentator to Andres Cantor’s play by play for Univision in the 1990s: “Great teams are made up of great players and great great players make great plays.”

The result of the second goal was that it forced Didier Deschamps into not one but two tactical substitutions in the 40th minute, removing the ineffective Dembele and Giroud in favor of Marcos Thuram and Kuolo Mani. It’s completely unheard of for a manager to make a substitute 5 minutes before half of a championship game, let alone two. But Deschamps must have feared that Argentina could score a third goal and fully finish off the game before the first half ended. 

Di Maria’s goal barely elluded the diving Lloris for the 2-0 lead.

The second half began much as the first half had played out. Argentina had the majority of the ball, the better ideas, and more shots on goal whereas France appeared completely discombobulated, at times not able to execute simple throw-ins and at others having to scramble on defense to prevent the third goal. 

With the game lingering towards its finish, France began to have a bit more possession and Mbappe, who had previously been largely ineffective and absent from the game, finally got his first shot on goal in the 70th minute. Just eight minutes later, France finally found a chink in the Argentinian armor. Kuolo Mani outraced Otamendi to a loose ball (Otamendi should have just booted it but he tried to control it), then outmuscled him as the ball went into the box forcing Otamendi to foul him. Mbappe made the PK to put France right back in it.

Two observations are merited here. The first is I had always feared that Otamendi was vulnerable to the speed of the French attackers and there would ultimately be a moment when his lack of pace would expose this major liability. Although it wasn’t Mbappe who got the better of Otamendi, it was another tall lanky and explosive player that did. Argentina had done well throughout the game to minimize this defensive vulnerability but with only 10 minutes left in the game, France finally exploited it. The other is this occurred with Argentina comfortably ahead and supposedly in cruise control. The French had looked completely ineffective up until that point, but after the goal, the energy of the game changed.

Argentina were still reeling from that vicious left jab when they got hit by a yet more dangerous right hook only a minute later. Messi, of all people, lost possession in midfield to the recent substitute Kingsley Coman. Andre Rabiot collected Coman’s pass in the midfield and found Mbappe’s head with a nice switch of play. Mbappe’s header to Thuram was the beginning of a wall pass which culminated in Mbappe getting the ball back unmarked and one on one with the keeper. Rather than dribbling it as he is inclined to do, Mbappe let the looping return pass drop as far as he could before striking it with his right foot. His angling downward motion before striking prevented him skying the ball. The resulting shot went skimming hard on the ground past a fully outstretched Emiliano Martinez. It was, simply put, a perfectly placed dagger. While Messi’s Argentina had won the earlier rounds convincingly, Mbappe’s France was on the verge of what appeared, just minutes before, an improbable comeback.

Argentina had finally succumbed to one of soccer’s biggest truisms: the most dangerous lead in soccer is 2-nil. 

The danger of the 2-nil lead of course is that, if the team with the lead lets the opponent get one back, the team trailing start to believe they can get a second. And when they do, and especially as fast as the French did, the team that has come from behind now has completely gained all of the momentum, has all of the energy on their side. The team that was in the lead loses control of the game. To belabor the boxing analogy further it’s the tale of the boxer, who in control over most of the bout, suddenly gets punched with a devastating 1-2 combination. Now groggy from the suddenness of the counterpunch, is easily susceptible to the knockout himself. 

Messi’s goal in the overtime.

With the game now in overtime, Messi’s goal in the 109th minute appeared, finally, to be the winner. The play that led to the goal started with a ball passed seemingly innocent high ball into the air where it was masterfully back-heeled on a short-hop by Martinez to Messi, who passed it to Alvarez, who then finished off the triangle back to Martinez. Martinez’s shot was blocked by Lloris but Messi, like any good forward knows to follow the path of the ball, was right there to pounce on the rebound. A French defender cleared the ball but only after it was a full three yards past the goal line. The holographic offside replay showed that Martinez was onside only because the last French defender’s derriere enabled it.

It’s important here to take a detour into past history. This game’s ebb and flow was similar to that of the 1986 World Cup Championship game between Argentina and Germany. In that game Argentina raced off to a 2-0 lead before Germany struck back with two quick goals of their own to tie it. An undaunted Maradona led his team back by providing the assist for Burruchaga’s winning goal at the very end of the game. Like Maradona, Messi provided the key play here as well.

It is at this juncture, however, that this game eclipsed the 1986 thriller played in the Azteca both in terms of quality of play and the drama that is a direct consequence of it. A late penalty kick awarded to France from a handball by Gonzalo Montiel gave Mbappe a chance to score yet again. Montiel jumped up to block a shot from Mbappe and it hit his extended right arm in the elbow. Mbappe, who had already made one PK, stepped up and hit the second one hard to Ramirez’s right. The game was tied yet again; the French having come back a second time.

Mbappe ties the game again with his third goal of the match.

More drama and late heroics were to come. Deep into the second half of extra time. Emiliano Martinez came to the rescue, His acrobatic kick save off of Muani’s shot saved Argentina. It would have been a dramatic way for France to cap off their comeback. That would have been France’s knockout blow; it would have denied Messi his Cup.

What made this game exceptional was the fact that it changed course so dramatically. While one team completely dominated for 80 minutes, the last 40 were as scintillating a game as there has ever been played, especially given the stakes. The back and forth, the swings in momentums, the extra time, Messi vs Mbappe. The storylines discussed before the game all materialized during the game. This was not only a heavyweight match between two great teams, but it was also one between two great players: one Messi the GOAT, and one Mbappe, who if he keeps playing at this level, seems to be the only current player on path to eclipse Messi someday.

Argentina’s team runs towards Montiel after his final PK clinched the title.

At the end Argentina won a tense penalty kick shootout 4 to 2.Gonzalo Montiel, whose handball had allowed France’s Mbappe to tie the score at 3 in the dying moments of extra time, calmly slotted the ball past Hugo Lloris to finally win it.

The team quickly embraced Montiel and celebrated their third win overall and their first cup in 36 years. Messi finally had his trophy, and in the process, had finally eclipsed his idol Diego Armando Maradona.


The back and forth was not only for team but also for individual glory. Messi started out one goal ahead of Mbappe in the Golden Boot, then went ahead by two goals before Mbappe scored three to eclipse his Paris St. Germain teammate. A consolation prize no doubt but still a great individual triumph for a player that showed great character by never surrendering, by willing his team to not one, but two, improbable comebacks.

Messi set a number of records in this game: a) most games 26 surpassing Lothar Matthaus , b) most minutes 2,300(surpassing Paolo Maldini), c) Argentina’s leading scorer at the WC, beating  Gabriel ‘Batigol’ by three goals.

WC 2022: Semi-Final 2: France 2 – Morocco 0

France headed to second straight final

French players celebrate their semi-final win.

France did in the first eight minutes what five other teams could not do to the Moroccan defense in the entire tournament (Only Canada scored against Morocco in the group phase and Morocco came back to win that game.)  Before and after Canada, European powers Croatia, Belgium, Spain, or Portugal failed to pierce the 5-4-1 wall that the Moroccans had built.

Theo Hernandez, hanging out on the left side of the box, pounced on a ball that deflected off of a defender from a shot by Mbappe and his acrobatic left footed half-volley beat the Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou and a defenseman on the line. Bounou’s numerous acrobatic saves had helped Morocco keep all of those blank sheets throughout the tournament. It’s interesting to note that Bounou decided to put his hands up to block the high shot, and Hernandez’s shot beat him at the midsection. This is in part to offer a defense for the technique used by many keepers that put their hands at their side to protect that exact shot (this was used by German keeper Manuel Neuer against Japan when they scored their game-winning goal.

Theo Hernandez beats Bounou for the firsg goal.

Facing a deficit for only the second time, Morocco’s Azzedine Ounahi’s shot headed towards the far post was saved by Hugo Lloris. In the 17th minute, Giroud took advantage of a weird bounce to get past the last Moroccan defender and his hard shot hit the left post. Giroud would hit again, going wide this time at 35’ after Mbappe had run down and had his shot blocked.

Nearing the end of the half, Morocco had their best chance yet but Jawad El Yamik’s bicycle kick also hit the post.

El Yamik’s acrobatic overhead kick almost equalized for Morocco

In the 65th minute, Marcus Thuram, son of legendary defender Lilian Thuram, came into the game to replace Oliver Giroud. He lined up on the left-hand wing and Didier Deschamps, France’s manager, sent Mbappe to the right. That modification changed the game. From that moment on, France had the better of the ball and the chances. In the 79th minute, with Mbappe back to the left, the French scored their second goal when Mbappe’s dribbling in the box attracted five Moroccan defenders. His pass across the mouth of the goalie box was perfect and all the recently subbed-in Randal Kuolo Mani had to do was tap it in.

Mbappe’s play was very reminiscent of the kind of play that Messi is capable of. Receiving a short pass from Thuram at the edge of the box, he eluded his first defender with a fake step forward before quickly going right. Having lost the initial defender (who bit on the Mbappe’s fake), it was tight dribbling in space that got him around the other four defenders before he laid a perfectly placed ball for the easy tap in.

Playing with Messi apparently has rubbed off on Mbappe. Usually known for his long, gallivanting, and furiously fast runs (a la Brazilian Ronaldo) that leave his defenders in his wake, he has now added this extra dimension; the ability to elude defenders in tight spaces before making a perfect pass to a temmate. Once a pure striker, he’s also capable of playmaking of the best quality. The fact that he’s only 23 years old is going to make him dangerous not only in the future, but most importantly, against Argentina in the final. 

The two teammates, Messi and Mbappe, who are arguably at the top of the world right now, will meet Sunday to decide who wins soccer’s most coveted trophy. Messi is seeking his first, and Mbappe is seeking to become the youngest player in history since Pele to win two World Cups.


Morocco’s defense, which had been stellar up to this game, suffered two huge setbacks. One of their center-backs, Naif Aguerd hurt his hamstring in the warmup. The other, captain Romain Saiss, who was born in France, tried to play but didn’t last more than 20 minutes.

“We gave the maximum, that’s the most important,” Morocco’s coach Regragui said. “We had some injuries, we lost Aguerd in the warm-up, Saiss at half-time. We paid for the slightest mistake. We didn’t get into the game well, we had too much technical waste in the first half, and the second goal kills us. But that doesn’t take away everything we did before.”

WC 2022 – Semi-Final 1: Argentina 3 – Croatia 0

Argentinians get revenge.

Croatia’s Gvardiol can only grab the net after Messi dribbled him 50 yards to set up Argentina’s third.

How things have changed in four years. In the 2018 World Cup group stage, Croatia handed Argentina one of its worst losses in a World Cup, beating them 3-0 in the second group game. Croatia would go on to win all 3 games and make their incredible run all the way to the championship game before they finally succumbed to France.

The memory of that game must have been well imprinted on the Argentinians before this match. Croatia continued their excellent form in this tournament. They didn’t lose a game in the group stage and they then won their first two knockout games by penalties just like they had in 2018.

Just having beaten Brazil, they looked poised to slay the other South American giant.

Except that Argentina was having none of that this year. Scaloni, Argentina’s manager, made one minor tweak to his formation. To counter Croatia’s excellent midfield play, he inserted an extra midfielder using a 4-4-2 formation, having DePaul, Paredes, Fernandez, and Mac Allister just behind Messi and Alvarez.

This tactical formation worked wonders. After a tense first 15 minutes, Argentina started to gain control of the ball. The midfielder provided the service and Alvarez and Messi both started to threaten.

In the 34th minute. Alvarez latched on to a pass from Enzo Fernandez and dribbled into the 18 yard box where he was brought down by Croatia’s keeper. Instead of a slow run up that he’s used before, and which has become more customary amongst penalty takers.With Modric looking on in the background,  Messi eschewed the slow run up that he’s used before, and which has become more fashionable, and simply smashed the resulting penalty into the right side of the net past a diving Livakovic to open up the scoring. The moment didn’t call for finesse. It called for power. Messi made a statement right then and there.

Argentina’s Messi and Alvarez have been on fire. Here they celebrate Alvarez’s second goal.

Just five minutes later, Croatia threatened with a free kick. That was cleared by the last line into an open space, where Messi just managed to touch the ball forward ten yards behind the center circle. Julian Alvarez, the other part of the Argentinian attacking 2, latched on to Messi’s pass and sprinted towards the Croatian goal with the ball tethered to his feet with three defenders in pursuit. A teammate raced ahead of him almost as if to create interference as Alvarez weaved his way forward. After two fortunate deflections, he found himself one on one with the keeper and scored the second goal. As my favorite Spanish TV announcer, Luis Omar Tapia, would yell: dos a cero !

Before the half, Livakovic came up with a huge save off of a Mac Allister header that would have iced the game. That moment would have to wait until later.

In the second half, Messi did something I just didn’t think he was capable of any more. Taking the ball off of a simple throw in on the right hand side, he dribbled his way all the way down the sideline into the edge of the penalty area. Shielding the ball like no one else is capable of and using a series of twists and turns, he managed to work his way around masked defender Gvardiol and fed a perfect pass that nutmegged another Croatian defender to Alvarez for the simple put in. Another outrageous pass, but this time after another amazing dribbling sequence. Tres a cero !

Argentina, up 3-0, were not about to lose this game. There would be no magical comeback for Croatia, no collapse from Argentina. Up 3-0, Messi and company would not allow any of that to happen. Not this time.

After the game Messi said: “Throughout the World Cup it has been incredible what we have experienced. We are going to play the final which is what we wanted.”

Now in the championship game, Argentina awaits the winner of France versus Morocco. Argentina was eliminated in 2018 by France 4-3 in what was an incredible back and forth game. Revenge against the French, if they can get there, would be sweetest of all.

WC 2022: Quarterfinals – Right Bracket

Morocco 1 – Portugal 0

Moroccan fans celebrate their country’s historic victory.

Ronaldo’s dreams of a World Cup final, let alone a championship, came crashing down against this year’s Cinderella team. Morocco scored late in the first half when their star Yousef En-Nesri out-jumped his defender and Portugal’s keeper Diogo Costa to head a ball  first into the ground and then into the back of the net. Watching from the bench, Ronaldo could only gasp in amazement at the Moroccan goal.  In the dying moments of the half, Portugal were a bit unlucky and hit the crossbar.

Both teams had excellent chances off the break. Ronaldo finally entered the game (along with Joao Cancelo) in the 50th minute and Portugal began to dominate while Morocco looked simply to survive. In the 58th minute, Goncalo Ramos, the star of the 6-1 trashing against Switzerland found himself unmarked in the box but could only manage to head the ball wide of the goal. Minutes later Bruno Fernandez barely hit a powerful shot over the crossbar.

En-Nesyri outjumps Portugal’s center back and goalkeeper to score.

In the 74th, Morocco used their lightning quick counter to get a 3-2 advantage in the box but Zedirah couldn’t get it past the last Portuguese defender to a wide open teammate on the right. In the 82nd minute, Ronaldo laid the ball back off perfectly to Joao Felix but his shot was saved spectacularly by Bounou. Early in stoppage a Ronaldo received a long pass and struck it first time forcing another stop by Bounou.

And with that last attempt, Portugal’s chances ended and Morocco became the only African team ever to reach the Final Four.

France 2 – England 1

The French celebrate their victory over England as Mason Mount kneels in disappointment.

This was the only match to feature two heavyweights. Which is interesting since England hasn’t won the World Cup in 56 years, or any other major trophies for that matter. They are highly regarded only because the domestic league in England is so good and features so many world class players. By extension, the English players are also good and the team is always competitive, even if they currently have the longest drought of any of the big teams in the world. 

France, on the other hand, are the reigning champions and are looking to easily be the betting favorites to repeat. No Benzema, no Pogba, no Kante. No probleme. Such is the depth of this squad that even hard core fans of the sport would be hard pressed to recognize France’s goal scorer at minute 17, a young kid named Aurelien Tchouameni, who took an innocent looking pass a good 10 meters from the top of the box, and unleashed a wickedly powerful shot with his instep that beat Jordan Pickford at the far post.

At the start of the second half, Saka danced around the top of the box before being fouled, drawing a penalty. Harry Kane, who else (more on this later), lined up and rifled a shot past his teammate Lloris for the equalizer. Kane fired hard to his left as Lloris guessed wrong and went the other way.

Both teams had numerous chances afterwards. The tie almost didn’t last more than a minute as Raviot latched on to an errant ball and unleashed a hard shot that Pickford had to save at full stretch. But the English persisted with Saka forcing another Lloris save at 59’ and Harry McGuire heading the ball just past the post at 69’. Pickford then saved a point blank header from Giroud 5 minutes later. Giroud, however, would not miss again in the 78th minute, heading in a cross from Griezman just pass Pickford. The ball grazed off of McGuire’s shoulder, forcing the ball away from Pickford enough to prevent him from making the save.

But as in every highly competitive, back and forth game, it came down to a one single moment that would prove key to either winning or losing. In the 80th minute, a long ball was destined into the box for Declan Rice. France’s Teo Hernandez simply bulldozed Rice over. The decision, which was given only after a consultation with the VAR, was pretty obvious.

Kane scores his first PK; his second would sky over the goal.

The next decision, which may have seemed obvious to everyone, was to have Harry Kane take the PK. This is where I gasped in horror. Kane, after all, had just scored his 53rd goal for England just a half hour before. But as I looked at Kane and Lloris two thoughts became evident: a) having the same player take two PKs in one game is always risky, and b) Lloris and Kane are both teammates at Tottenham. Who else but Lloris would have the edge here ?

It’s one thing to study a rival through film, analyze their tendencies, perform an analysis based on shot locations and to use all that data as the basis for making an educated guess. As a goalkeeper in the modern age, you decide where to dive by crunching the numbers right ?

It’s quite another to observe these patterns on the training ground, to be as intimate with a teammate’s tendencies through daily observation. If anything Lloris knows Kane simply through osmosis. Kane, on the other hand, had just scored one and had to be thinking that he couldn’t put it in the same spot, that he had to do something different, especially since Lloris knows him intimately just as Kane knows Lloris.

As a general opinion, I firmly believe that Harry Kane is one of the best three top penalty kickers in the world. If the existence of the human race were dependent on a kick from the spot, I would not hesitate to pick this man to save us from the aliens. But I would not have picked him in this particular situation, at this particular time. I would have opted for anyone else.  As the PK unfolded, Kane did not appear nervous, he did not hint any discomfort. When he took aim it was obvious he was trying to kick it as hard as possible, almost thinking that even if Lloris guessed it, he wouldn’t be able to stop it. The resulting kick skied into the stands, and with it, England’s chances of bringing the Cup home.

WC 2022: Quarterfinals – Left Bracket

Croatia 1 (4) – Brazil 1 (2)

Croatia’s keeper celebrates as Marquinhos looks on after his kick hit the goal post.

Croatia can no longer be considered a dark-horse or a Cinderella team. They have now proven over two successive tournaments that they are a legitimate contender. How this tiny nation of 4 million is able to achieve success at this level that other much bigger, more populous, and richer countries is beyond the scope of this article, but it is still nevertheless fascinating to ponder.

Is it this particular generation of players ? Modric, Perisic, Kovacic, Lovren just to name a few. Or is a culture of football that produces technically gifted players ? Does their manager Zlatko Dalic have some kind of system that maximizes the talents of his players ? Or do the Croatians simply have some kind of superpower that allows them to beat any team in a PK shootout. This game marked the fourth time in the last six elimination games that the Croatians have won via penalties !

Or can we say that Brazil, not even mentioned until now, simply blew a lead they should not have ? How is it that you allow an older and surely more tired team (Croatia had played extra time against Japan already while Brazil cruised to a 4-1 victory over South Korea) to equalize on a 3-3 counter in the 119th minute ? Why didn’t Brazil park the bus at the end and simply shut shop down and advance ?

After the game Dalic claimed that the Croatian midfield of Modric, Brozovic, and Kovacic was the best in the world. This trio allowed Croatia to equal Brazil in possession.

“I said it before the game and I say it again now,” Dalic said after the match. “We have the best midfield in the world and we demonstrated it again today. We controlled the game.”

But that midfield dominance didn’t exactly translate into overall chances for Croatia, which were slim to none.  Rather it served as a force to frustrate the technically superior team into an endless 0-0 war of attrition that would eventually culminate in the Croatian specialty, the PK shootout. It wasn’t that Croatia didn’t try to generate chances but for as much as they tried, Croatia could not penetrate the last third to generate any shots on goal. Brazil, on the other hand, forced Croatia’s Dominc Livakovic to make 11 saves.

The Croatian tactic worked mightly for 104 minutes. Then, as often occurs with Brazil in tight and tense games, one moment of magic changed everything. The formula of team plus individual play worked once again when Neymar worked two wall passes before finally dribbling his way past the last defender and the goalie to roof the ball into the net. That looked like the game winner. All Brazil had to do was defend the last 15 minutes.

Neymar’s magic moment wasn’t enough to secure the victory.

If Croatia have proved something over their last two World Cups is that it is a team that simply does not give up. Using the strategy that they had employed all game, they did not panic. When Brazil inexplicably tried to attack deep into the second overtime, Croatia forced Brazil into a turnover and quickly began a counterattack. Six Brazilian players were caught out of position in the Croatian half, leaving only four to defend the lightning quick counter. Their lone shot on goal that evening happened to be the equalizing goal by Bruno Petkovic at the very end. Unlucky for Marquinhos, Petkovic’s shot deflected slightly off his knee, enough to elude the diving Allison.

Neymar being consoled by Dani Alves after the loss.

Once the PKs started, the body language of the players indicated a strong advantage for Croatia. When Marquinhos slammed his kick straight into the post, it was all over. Neymar, the Brazilian star, didn’t even get a chance to kick.


Croatia’s goalkeeper was simply phenomenal. Dominic Livakovic made 11 saves, the second most to Tim Howard’s performance for the USA in the 2014 World Cup against Belgium.

Neymar was slated to kick fifth in the PK shootout. He never got a chance to do anything. Tite apparently hadn’t learned the lesson of years ago when Portugal committed the same mistake with Ronaldo. The lesson here is have your best player kick first, period.

Argentina 2 (4) – Netherlands 2 (3)

Argentinian players celebrate their PK victory over Holland.

Argentina and the Netherlands have a long storied history in the World Cup. When they play it has almost a darby like feeling. The matches between the two countries have been historic, emotional, tense, and simply world-class football. The latest chapter written at the quarter final stage was a rich augmentation of this great rivalry. But what otherwise an amicable rivalry in years past got ugly this time around.

The two book end goals were the highlights of this game. Both were initiated by perfect passes that skimmed along the ground untouched to their destination. The two recipient players both took amazing first touches to then set up their finishes.  Both were works of genius, one from an individual and one from an entire team; the first improvised on the run of play and the second from a free kick.

The first 70 minutes of this game belonged to the South American squad as the Dutch, employing the same strategy that had worked against the Americans, decided to sit back and let Argentina have the ball.

Messi’s brilliance emerged again late in the first half. Taking a ball in the Dutch third, he eluded Nathan Akeh with a drop of the shoulder and started dribbling towards the middle of the 18 yard box. With three Dutch defenders pursuing him, he made a perfectly weighted no-look pass against the grain and found Nahuel Molina inside the box. Molina made the slightest of touches to both elude his defender and set up his shot, which beat the onrushing keeper. There are so many brilliant moments in this goal, but it is Messi’s ability to know where Molina would run a priori to his pass that has to be highlighted here. The weight and accuracy of the pass take a very close second.

In the 70th minute, Rodrigo Acuna drew a PK. The Dutch keeper, Andries Noppert, who made his national team debut in the Netherlands first game of the World Cup, opted not to move at all and Messi drilled it past him on his left side.

The Dutch finally decided to play, having no choice now as they stared down elimination. In came in the big Dutch striker Wout Weghorst. And in started the crosses into Argentinas box, in search of the 6’6” striker.

The game began to turn ugly in the 74th minute, when Argentinas keeper Emiliano Martinez stepped over Dutch striker Luuk de Jong after he collected a cross into the box. You can clearly see de Jong mouth: “What the fuck are you talking about.” as Martinez continued his stare down. What had been a very fair game up to that point was about to turn.

The Dutch finally scored in the 82nd minute after a beautiful header by Weghorst eluded Martinez, who hadn’t, up to that point, even faced a shot on goal. Just five minutes later, Argentina’s Leandro Paredes violently tackled Akeh in front of the Duth bench, and then, as if he hadn’t done enough, kicked the ball straight into the Netherlands bench. (Paredes earned a yellow for his stupid play. I feel like he should have earned two yellows on the same play and an immediate ejection.) The sequence earned him a yellow card, but more importantly, it was the time wasted that was the most punishing for Argentina. At the end of the preliminary 90’, an additional 10 minutes of time were added on.

Eleven minutes into stoppage, the Spanish referee called a borderline foul on Argentina that resulted in a Dutch free kick. Having threatened, and ultimately scored, via the air, the Dutch team were poised again to target their big man in the box for the equalizer.

The Dutch celebrate the tying goal on their brilliant trick play.

But what happened next was pure tactical brilliance coupled with perfect execution. Holland decided to go via the ground instead. Teun Koopmeiner’s perfectly weighted ball found Weghorst in the box, who this time used a deft touch and kick to roll the ball past on onrushing Martinez. It was an outrageous goal, one that goes against every grain of footballing convention. Working the ball on the ground to your tallest player caught Argentina completely off guard.

The extra time reverted to first half form. It was Argentina that threatened the entirety of the additional time. Noppert made one incredible save and the post made another one.

The penalties began with Emiliano Martinez trying, and succeeding, to intimidate the Dutch kickers as he stopped the first two shots diving first to his left to block Van Kyiuk, and then to his right to stuff Birkhaus. The Dutch would not miss their next three shots. And when Enzo Martinez went wide with his shot, it was up to Lautaro Martinez to put Argentina through with the last kick.

Emiliano Martinez saves Van Dijk PK.

As he walked up to take the kick, three Dutch players attempted to escort him to the spot, and one of them earned a yellow card in the process. Martinez made his shot and launched Argentina into the semi-finals, a game they’ve never lost in World Cup competition.

WC 2022 Round of 16: Portugal 6 – Switzerland 1

Goncalo Ramos celebrates his first of three goals.

Portugal blasted Switzerland early and often, and they did it without their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo. His substitute, a little known player (To me at least. My good friend Bob from West Virginia probably knows him) named Goncalo Ramos scored with a blistering left-footed shot to the Swiss keeper’s near post at minute 17’. Pepe towered over his defender on a corner in the 33rd minute. In complete control Portugal were up the dreaded 2-0 nil, but with Switzerland looking fairly anemic, there was very little to worry.

In the second half, Portugal turned on the jets. Ramos again at 51’ and 67’ with Guerrero’s goal sandwiched in at 55’. Five to zero ! It mattered little that the Swiss pulled one back at 58’. This game was over before it even started it seemed. Ronaldo came in for the last 15 minutes to get in on the party and got close a couple of times (he scored on a beautiful left-footed finish but he was ruled offside). Portugal scored again deep into stoppage time.

Pepe towers over his defender to score Portugal’s second goal.

This was by far the worst game of the tournament. Even though it was not as bad of a thrashing as what Spain administered to Costa Rica, the fact that it came in the knock-out round makes it more emphatic. This was close in goal margin to the second Maracanazo, the combined German beatdown and Brazilian meltdown in the 2014 semi-final.

Both Portuguese speaking teams have looked shockingly good. Wouldn’t it be fun if they were to meet up in a World Cup Final for the ages. Brazil might win 4-3, or the scoreline could as easily be reversed in favor of the colonizers.

WC 2022 – Round of 16: Spain 0 (0) – Morocco 0 (3)

Morocco’s player celebrate their big upset win.

This game was what I thought it would be. Spain with its customary possession and Morocco using its lightning fast counter-attack. These two elements made for a highly entertaining, back and forth game, easily one of the most exciting first halves of the entire tournament. The fans’ constant whistling, present mostly when Arab teams have played, provided an eerie soundtrack to the game, one that got scarier every time Spain had the ball for long stretches of time, and then, for the briefest moments it took for the Moroccans to race down the field, one that transformed and erupted into all out cheering.

Back and forth this went.

Morocco’s keeper Bounou with another save against Spain.

Spain’s best chance came early in the half when Gavi’s shot was deflected and hit the post but it wouldn’t have counted since it was offside. Ascensio’s shot in the 26th minute that went just wide was the only shot that Spain attempted in the first half, a record low in this tournament for La Furia.

Gavi’s four fouls was very indicative of the frenetic style that Morocco play with. Even though Spain had their customary lion’s share of possession (72% to 18%), Morocco also generated many dangerous chances on goal.  In a weird way, one would think that this style would benefit the Spaniards since it opens up the the field rather than constricting. There’s nothing more frustrating to see than Spain pinging the ball all around the place inside of a 35 yard space and not be able to score. This tactic, colloquially known as ‘parking the bus’, has at many times frustrated Spain: all that possession and no end result. 

Early in the second half, Spain substituted out Asensio and Gavi in favor of Morata and Soler.

Morocco countered with changes of their own, taking out Bouef and En Nazri. Morocco switched to a back 5 in what appeared to be conceding even more of the ball. What proved to be most beneficial to the Moroccans was their ability to recover so quickly on defense, denying in the process any clear breakaways that you would have expected Spain to capitalize on. In the 91st, Morata had a wide open header on the second post but missed it badly.

The game continued its frenetic pace into the overtime with Spain attacking in waves with subs Balde and Ansu Fati leading the way, but it was Unai Simon with a stunning save off of Ziyech’s point-blank shot from only 10 yards out that saved the day. Spain had chances but could never score.

Dejected Spanish players after their PK loss.

Morocco won the PK shootout 3-0. Morocco’s keeper Yassine Bounou, who had been amazing throughout the whole match, shined again.

Achraf Hakimi had the final dagger on a low Panenka kick. Panenka’s are always daring but this one less so due to the horrific kicking from Spain. 

WC2022 – Round of 16: Brazil 4, South Korea 1

Vinicius, Raphina, Paqueta, Neymar Samba de Quatro

The header image on this site features what has been called the greatest team never to win the World Cup. Zico, Gerson, Falcao, Dirceu, Socrates, et al. They may not be the greatest, but they certainly are on a very short list. Brazilian teams always aspire to the Jogo Bonito style, to not only win but to do so in a beautiful, elegant, quintessential Brazilian manner. The 1982 team is definitely a standard bearer of the Samba style.

This year’s edition seems to want to take their place in that upper echelon of Brazilian teams. Vinicius, Marquinhos, Militao, Casemiro, Neymar et al. They simply thrashed S. Korea 4-1 in a game where they could have scored more had the S. Korean keeper not played so amazingly well. Allison, after not having faced a single shot in two games of the group stage (he didn’t play the third, a 1-0 loss to Cameroon), made a series of outstanding saves as well.  But the Scratch D’Oro, as it is commonly known in South America, was never in serious trouble. 

Vinicius’ goal surrounded by S. Korean defenders

The first goal came courtesy of Vinicius Jr. Receiving a cross on the left-hand side, he quickly and calmly popped it up to himself, and then with 3 S. Korean defenders rushing at him (including the goalie who came out to cut down the angle), put it into the upper right hand corner. He hit it with just the right power: not too hard to sky it and not too soft so it would be blocked. It was simply a sublime setup and finish.

Richarlison nets his third goal.

The third goal by Richarlison illustrates both the individual and team excellence of this team. Richarlison managed three touches on his head (as if he were playing around on the training ground) with a defender right on him, then used a little flick of his foot to finally get past him. Dribbling into the box, he then passed it to a teammate and continued his run and received the return wall pass before shooting it into the back of the net.

The Jogo Bonito, at its best, is both about the individual and the collective, a lethal combination of one on one brilliance mixed in with standard team play. Vinicius scored his goal after a nice team passing sequence that ended up with the ball at his feet with a chance to score. His clever pop and perfectly weighed shot was the individual part of the equation. On Richarlison’s goal, the individual trickery came at the beginning and it helped him free himself of his defender. The rest was simple one touch passing and a simple shot. They made it seem like training ground stuff.

Richarlison’s acrobatic half bicycle against Switzerland

Playing like this, I can’t see any team, other than France, who possess many of the same qualities, that can beat them.

WC 2022 – Round of 16: Netherlands 3 – USA 1

Tyler Adams takes a knee after getting knocked out by the Dutch. Down but not out.

Tyler Adams, the diminutive USA midfielder had covered the most ground of any player in this World Cup having run 24 miles in the three group games. In the tenth minute, against the run of play, the Dutch started a counter and Adams found himself trailing Memphis Dupay in the opponent’s half. Dupay continued his run all of the way into the USA 18 yard box and Adams never caught up. Memphis struck a cut-back cross from Denzel Dumfries cleanly past Matt Turner for a 1-0 lead. It was one of the few mistakes that Adams committed during this tournament, and unfortunately, it costs the Americans dearly.

Up until that point, the US enjoyed Spain like possession (72%). It created a clear opportunity for goal when McKinney’s looping pass found Pulisic alone on the left but Pulisic’s left footed shot went directly at the Dutch keeper. 

After their goal, the Dutch enjoyed a bit more possession as the US looked flustered but by the 30th minute the US had recovered their mojo and continued their attack. That return of momentum was wiped out by another defensive lapse towards the end of the half that led to another Dutch goal, this time Danny Blind banging another cut-back across past stunned Turner.  Goals at the stroke of half-time are momentum killers and this one wasn’t any different.

Blind celebrates the Oranje second goal at the stroke of half

Even though everyone knows that a 2-0 lead is tenuous (often called the most dangerous lead in soccer), the US is a young team. At the half, they got younger as Gio Reyna was brought in as a substitute for the ineffective Jesus Ferreira.

I’m a huge Reyna fan. Even though he had only played 7 minutes in this World Cup, I thought he deserved more time on the pitch. He is a capable dribbler, but more importantly he knows how to slow the game down and knows how to use those pauses well to create chances for others. 

The Americans controlled possession after the half and finally got a goal from Haji Wright in the 76th minute, when Pulisic’s cross after a corner somehow deflected off of Haji’s right foot and into the goal. When a team trails 2-0, that first goal is the most important. It turns momentum on its head. The team that’s behind feels energized like never before and begins to believe that it can turn it around completely, score 2 more and win the game. Statistically it doesn’t actually happen that much but what’s more important is the belief that it can. 

Haji Wright’s goal brings the US one back.

Unfortunately for the US, the Dutch struck back just 5 minutes later when Blind made a run down the left flank and crossed all the way to the back post, where an unmarked Dumfries made no mistake to volley the ball into the back of the net. Game, set, and match as they say in tennis.

Three obvious, and some say, correctable defensive mistakes cost the US this game. Other than that they dominated possession, had more initiative, but just couldn’t get the early lead that would have changed the complexion of the game. 

Back to the Adams play early on. One cannot fault this young man for that defensive lapse. He rebounded to play a solid game, but it was evident early on that he may have been trying to manage his energy given everything he had output during the group phase. The one thing the US lacks sorely is depth. Had the US had more of that, maybe Adams gets a bit of a break in group phase. Maybe McKinney isn’t as wore out and has to come out in the 60th minute.

The other thing that the US lack is a true #9 who can flat out score (for that matter that’s what a lot of other teams in this World Cup also lack). Once they can find that, this group will be back in four years stronger and more experienced than ever. They will, I believe, be in a position to make a strong run for the title when the Cup is played on home soil.