2014 World Cup Review – Part 5 (Third place playoff and final)

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Brazil 0 – 3 Netherlands

It’s the game that nobody wants to play after having gone through the heartbreak of a semi-final loss. The Brazilian players surely would not have felt like showing their faces in public only a few days after being well and truly humbled by Germany, or perhaps they saw it as an opportunity to exit the tournament with a victory and gain back a sliver of lost credibility. If that was their script then you can be certain that the Dutch weren’t reading from the same one. For a team whose coach said they’d rather be on a plane back home than playing this game they played some brilliant football, which is odd as one wonders why they hadn’t played like this, proactively that is, in their quarter- and semi-finals. Perhaps it’s partly that Brazil were, again, so woeful that they allowed the Netherlands to coast defensively. Brazil had altered their line-up with Jo, Ramires, Willian, Paulinho, Silva and Maxwell coming into the starting 11 at the expense of Fred, Hulk, Bernard, Fernandinho, Dante and Marcelo. The Dutch stayed true to their setup with only Sneijder out with an injury during the warm up; De Guzman was his replacement in attacking midfield. It was thought that a returning Thiago Silva would bring some much needed stability and calmness, absent in the semi-final, to Brazil’s defence, however it was Silva who gave away an avoidable third minute penalty. Van Persie converted easily and Brazil were in a familiar position. The key test would be how Brazil would respond, after not managing to turn the tables against Germany. Fourteen minutes later we had our answer when David Luiz cleared feebly with his head, the ball dropping to Daley Blind in the centre of the penalty area. He kept his cool and finished high into the net. Both teams attacked, the Dutch looking to extend their lead and Brazil seeking to overturn the deficit. With few scoring opportunities from Brazil it was the Netherlands who surfaced with the killer blow in second half injury time with Wijnaldum, Netherlands unsung midfielder throughout this tournament, who scored to make it 3-0, heaping further misery on nation already on their knees. There was time for one last talking point as Van Gaal switched goalkeepers in the third minute of injury time, bringing on Michel Vorm. This change ensured that every one of the 23-man Dutch squad had seen game time during the 2014 World Cup. The Netherlands fly home having punched above their weight while Brazil contemplate a tournament that started with so much promise but ultimately ended with some serious repercussions for Brazilian football.

Germany 1 – 0 Argentina

And so our attentions turned to Rio de Janeiro, specifically to the cathedral of football, the Maracana. It was 50 years ago that 171,000 packed into the old Maracana to witness the death of Brazilian football. This time the Brazilians weren’t involved, though the continent was still represented. It was Europe vs South America. Efficiency vs flair. The world’s best team vs the world’s best player. Germany vs Argentina. Based on the semi-final showings of both teams the expectation was for Germany to have a reasonably comfortable game, but at the same time there was no one willing to completely discount Argentina’s fire power. And that man, Messi, capable of instant magic. The first chance fell Argentina’s way and was horribly screwed wide by Gonzalo Higuain from close range. It came as the result of a misjudged backheader from Toni Kroos. Higuain pounced on a similar unexpected chance in the game against Belgium but couldn’t make Germany pay here. Perhaps it was the occasion that got to him. Later in the half the Albiceleste fans in the stands and around the world were on their feet as Higuain put the ball in the back of the net only to be ruled offside, correctly. Right on the whistle of halftime Germany had their best chance as Howedes headed against Argentina’s upright. At halftime it was scoreless and it was clear Argentina were proving a much more stern test for Germany than they’d had all tournament. Messi should have put Argentina 1-0 not long into the second half but pulled his shot inches wide and Palacio chipped Neuer late on but again it was slightly off target. The game ambled into extra time and it was still even, tit for tat. On 113 minutes a lofted ball was sent forward by the Germans and it found the fleet footed Andre Schurrle who killed it with his first touch. He stopped the ball dead. He threw a quick dummy to the right but moved left, evading the Argentinian defender.. It was a quick counter attack; the Argentinians were struggling to get numbers back into defence. Schurrle was still charging down the line, this time with two Argentinian defenders for company but still he managed to squeeze the ball through to the centre of the pitch. The ball found Mario Gotze who was positively steaming into Argentina’s penalty area. It was all so fast. The cross was too high; surely Gotze wouldn’t be able to control it. He did: the first touch so elegant, with his chest. His second touch sent the ball past the flailing Romero and into the net. It was a goal and it had just won Germany the privilege of lifting that World Cup trophy high into the Rio night sky.

Words will have to do

The 2014 World Cup was a time for nations to take centre stage at the spiritual home of football. We saw the greatest characters of the world’s greatest game testing each other on football’s most iconic stage. Cultures clashed, stars were sent packing, and the game rewarded those with courage to be noticed. The world watched in awe as the Spanish empire crumbled, an era of utter dominance coming to a tragic end. The minnows had their day and a young Colombian called James Rodriguez gave us the chance to dream again of limitless possibilities. Perceived no-hopers ran alongside kings, pushing them closer to the edge than ever before. The harshness of the penalty kicks ended dreams and robbed the fairy-tale of millions. There were the villains, the heroes, the vanquished, and, of course, the victors. There was a final that put the world’s greatest team against the world’s greatest individual. Brazil produced a World Cup of humanity, a tournament of depth and substance, high quality, missed opportunities, breathless pace, endless passion and inspiration. Let us not forget that we are in a time where football is being accused of losing touch with its moral compass. However this tournament, for a time at least, returned to the people. At the end of the day the most important thing is the people, that’s all a World Cup is. Yes it centres on a series of unforgettable football matches but it’s people that make the difference. Individuals in their thousands coming from across the globe. Fans, players of all nations, all united for a moment under one flag, for one pursuit, the world game.

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2014 World Cup Review – Part 4 (Quarter-finals and Semi-finals)

A massacre in progress...

A massacre in progress…

 
France 0 – 1 Germany
 
Two European heavyweights come together at last. There is no doubting the football history between these two nations let alone the political and wartime history. For the moment Europe would take centre stage on the South American continent. France had come into the tournament on the back of a poor qualifying campaign; they had to see off Ukraine in the play-off round. It was those two games against Ukraine where a switch was flicked which seemed to signal two things: Deschamps finally knew who his best squad included, and he knew how to start getting the best from them. The free-flowing and free-scoring first few games in Brazil was testament to this. Germany, on the other hand, as per usual steamrolled through qualifying and arrived comfortably (save for the late show required against Algeria) at the quarter-finals. This first game of the quarter-finals was extremely cagey. There were hints of flowing attacks but the defensive structures of both teams held strong and forced the battle to remain in midfield. It was the result of an early set piece that Germany took the ascendency through a Mats Hummels header. The second half saw Germany keep possession and limit France to a few counter-attacks, one such occasion allowed Benzema some space in the German box and he fired away a shot only to be denied by a strong hand from Neuer. Germany progressed to their fourth consecutive semi-finals appearance.
 
Brazil 2 – 1 Colombia
 
The Europeans had had their time in the spotlight, now it was time for the South Americas best to go head to head. Colombia was probably the only team present at the quarter-finals that hadn’t really had to break a sweat, most of that down to the midfield brilliance of James Rodriguez. Brazil on the other hand had scraped past Chile by narrow margins (literally centimetres). Brazil were without the physicality of Luiz Gustavo in midfield while Colombia were fielding their strongest 11. The game had barely settled when the ball was in the Colombian net; the official record gives the credit to Thiago Silva despite the last touch coming off a Colombian defender. Colombia started to feel a pressure not yet felt by them this tournament and it was then that they came out of their shell producing a few good saves from Julio Cesar in the Brazilian goal. They could not get the equaliser and instead it was Brazil who got their second through an unorthodox, but no less stunning, side-footed free kick from David Luiz. Colombia switched to all-out attack and were rewarded with a penalty in the 80th minute; Rodriguez calmly slotted past Cesar, seeming to have some help from a large grasshopper which had mysteriously found itself perched on Rodriguez’ shoulder. There were no more goals to be scored, despite Colombia’s attacking; the remaining point of note was Zuniga’s challenge on Neymar in the form of a knee to the back which saw the young forward ruled out of the remainder of the World Cup with a fractured vertebra. It’s something that nobody wanted to see and it’s unlikely there was malicious intent from Zuniga, however Brazil had lost their young king a couple of matches out from his possible coronation. The Selecao progress, again narrowly, 2-1.
 
Argentina 1  0 Belgium
 
As a neutral I struggled to draw any emotion or profound meaning from this game, despite being a World Cup quarter-final. Belgium had been playing at a minimum standard with respect to what was expected of them and considering the special talents in the squad, while Argentina were proving a contradiction; in the lead up to the tournament the emphasis was on the attacking powerhouse involving Messi, Higuain, Di Maria and Aguero, however so far their attack was being outshone by their solid defence, which was expected to crumble under a stern test. Again, this standard (nothing more) 1-0 win provided another confidence boosting clean sheet for Romero and his boys at the back, but going forward the Albiceleste looked a bit stale, granted Di Maria exited the field of play on 33 minutes with a thigh injury. Higuain’s goal on 8 minutes only came from a fortuitous bounce but Higuain was ready to pounce and arrowed the ball into the bottom left of Courtois’ net. Nineteen year old Origi and Lukaku, his replacement on 59 minutes, looked the most likely for the Belgians, but again the blue and white defence held off to set up a date with the winner of Netherlands v Costa Rica.
 
Netherlands 0(4p) – 0(3p) Costa Rica
 
The further the Dutch progressed in the tournament the more they went into their shell. There weren’t many high expectations being laid on the team from back in the Netherlands and they were probably happy with a quarter-final finish; this was before the relative freebie of Costa Rica turned out to be their combatants. That’s not to take away anything from the Central Americans – be aware, they fully deserved their quarter-final spot. They dispatched both Italy (three time world champions), Uruguay (semi-finalists last time around and reigning South American champions), and Greece (less glamorous, but still winners of Euro 2004); in most cases each victory involved some neat midfield passing and a very solid defence. However, this time they were without Duarte. It showed. The Netherlands had many chances to put the Costa Ricans away but the more they pushed the more absurd the missed chances became. Shots from point blank range were somehow dilly-dallied aside by splayed Costa Rican limbs, heads, and with some help from the crossbar. Ruiz had a quality left-footed curled effort sail just over the crossbar and a missed headed opportunity, chances he came to rue as, when it came to penalties, he was one of two Costa Ricans to fail to convert. Although he could have been put off by the attitude shown by late(!) substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul (gutsy by Van Gaal). Netherlands won 4-3 on penalties and the Central Americans’ dream ended, when in truth they very well could have been semi-finalists.
 
Brazil 1 – Germany 7
 
In summary, the look on Toni Kroos’ face as he stumbled away from the 18-yard box having just put Germany 3-0 up on 26 minutes. It has been noted as one of my favourite moments for a reason: his expression, eyes wide as his hands slide down his face, perfectly captures the feeling of everyone on the field, everyone in the stands, and everyone in front of a TV anywhere else on the planet. You had every knowledge that you were watching a World Cup semi-final but you also had every reason to believe you were dreaming. The Brazilians were only in the contest for perhaps ten minutes before Muller, thanks to a bizarre lack of awareness from David Luiz, side footed his volley home, set the Germans on their path to resounding victory. As expected the Brazilians came out, playing the ball a lot quicker, but a dynamic interchange between Kroos, Muller, and Klose set up the latter to score Germany’s second and his 16thWorld Cup goal, surpassing Brazil’s Ronaldo in the process. It is interesting to note that a tweet is can only be 140 characters long, and it is a bit of perspective that people had yet to finish their tweet of Germany’s second before Kroos latched onto a cross for their third. Hell, they may not have finished tweeting even as Germany’s fourth went in two minutes later, again it was Kroos from a cutback. While TV audiences were rubbing their eyes, eating their breakfast, lunch or dinner, trying to comprehend how they’d missed two goals, Germany slotted home another, their fifth. A check of the clock confirmed we were only 29 minutes in. It was game over and had been since 3-0. Brazil had no response, zero. They couldn’t formulate an attack of their own so punch-drunk were they, like a slurring boxer trying to form a sentence after suffering an onslaught of jabs. It seemed the absence of their colossus at the back, Thiago Silva, was telling. Reports suggest that at half-time the Germans agreed to ease off a little bit, holding off on dishing out a larger embarrassment. The Selecao couldn’t hold out for the entire second half and the German’s managed two more goals through Andre Schurlle; the second was an elegant half volley that rocketed past Cesar at his near post and shot in off the crossbar. Mission accomplished. Die Mannschaft had qualified for the World Cup final and had sent the Brazilian nation into shambles.
 
Netherlands 0(2p) – 0(4p) Argentina
 
If you happened to be after a textbook definition of the word ‘contrast’, then look no further than the two semi-finals of the World Cup 2014. Brazil/Germany had goals, fluid attacking play (from Germany at least), atmosphere, an emphasis on team (again, from Germany), and highs and lows never thought possible at the semi-final stage. Netherlands/Argentina had very little of that. There was a secondary emphasis on attack and providing a stable wall at the back first. In the group stage the Dutch were counter-attacking, sure, but it was exciting, breaking forward at speed, still managing to show off a technical ability within the side. Throughout the round of 16 and quarter finals they reverted to a low block team, still counter-attacking but with far less vigour and aggression. This is a mixed message when you take note of the manager, Van Gaal, who’s approach has always been fluent attacking play based on possession. Argentina were odd, hanging more in an attacking-defending limbo. They hadn’t committed to one style of play during the tournament so far. When they counter-attacked they didn’t have the same speed that the Dutch showed early on, but then when they had possession for long periods of time they were happy to sweep the ball wide and send it back the other way again, coaxing the defenders out. A 0-0 at the end of 120 minutes was a fair reflection of two teams that had been cautious to spend energy on strong counter-attacks. The ensuing shootout, the Netherland’s second in as many games, seemed problematic for the Dutch: Van Gaal couldn’t bring on Krul, as in the previous game and had to go with inexperienced Cillessen, and they had to do it without Van Persie. Messi took the first spot kick of the evening and converted easily. Vlaar, essentially taking what would have been Van Persie’s penalty, failed, as did Sneijder – Romero, a goalkeeper developed by Van Gaal, guessed correctly both times. Messi and Co. didn’t miss and they set up a date with the Germans in Rio.
 
Stay tuned, final part 5 on the way…

2014 World Cup Review – Part 3 (Round of 16)

USA's Tim Howard with the goalkeeping display of the tournament against Belgium...

USA’s Tim Howard with the goalkeeping display of the tournament against Belgium…

Brazil 1(3p) – 1(2p) Chile
 
Sixteen have fallen and sixteen remain. It was now that the immediate elimination enters the equation; no second chances, everything counts. Just as they kicked-off the group stage, Brazil were again the first cab off the rank when they took on South American live wire Chile. Despite meeting in 68 matches previously, each of the previous 3 times the teams have met in the knockout stages of a World Cup (1962, 1998, 2010) Brazil have triumphed. The record continued. In perhaps the highest quality match of the tournament Brazil opened the scoring through David Luiz (suspected to be an own goal on the part of Chilean defender Jara). Both teams continued with a high intensity and the game pulsed nicely. A mistake from Hulk, producing a poor throw in deep in his own half, allowed Sanchez too much space inside the Brazilian penalty area and he duly slotted home past Julio Cesar at his near post. After 120 minutes the score remained 1-1, though it was Chile who had more chances to progress. Chilean fans were left wondering ‘what if’ when substitute Pinilla sent a thunder-bastard of a shot into Julio Cesar’s crossbar, a moment the Chilean striker will live forever not least due to having the memory tattooed onto his lower back. So commenced the first penalty shootout of the tournament and the 25th in World Cup history. While Chie had never before tasted a shootout at the World Cup finals, Brazil, comparatively, was a seasoned veteran having taken part in three (1986, 1994, 1998), winning two (1994, 1998). A knife-edge shootout ensued and of the ten shots fired only five were converted: three for Brazil and two for Chile. Despite pushing the hosts all the way, Chile were packing their bags, heading back to their home on the other side of the Andes.
 
Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay
 
With the Brazilians still partying, the rest of the world’s attention turned to yet another two South American nations slated to do battle at the Maracana: Colombia and Uruguay. This meant that four South American teams were chasing a single semi-final place. Colombia had their star while Uruguay were without theirs. It showed. From the kick-off Colombia controlled everything and it was mostly due to James Rodriguez. This was his game, you could feel it, he could feel it. The 22-year old is flaunted his playmaking skills skipping past players, sending balls long or short, a delicate touch, he had them all, including goals: two. But the first one, oh that first goal. It shook the World Cup. It shook the Uruguayans. And it shook the crossbar as it angled in. It was an abundance of elegance and grace shown in just two touches: the first to angle Aguilar’s headed assist ever so slightly to his right, and the second to volley home from 25 yards. Uruguay offered very little apart from some plucky counter-attacks, but without Suarez there were always going to be questions about their finishing. Another goals from Rodriguez just after half time sealed a quarter final for Colombia against hosts Brazil.
 
Netherlands 2 – 1 Mexico
 
Buoyed by topping the group of death, Netherlands took on Round of 16 mainstays Mexico in Fortaleza. In the spirit of consistency, the Mexicans have qualified for the Round of 16 in each of the previous five editions and in each they haven’t managed to progress any further. Until the 88th minute they surely thought they had finally broken the trend until Wesley Sneijder positively smashed the Brazuca into the net from 18 yards after pouncing on a loose ball, equalising. It was the definition of an unerring finish. Contrary to how they played in the group stages, the Dutch were setting up for counter-attack after counter-attack, which proved generally unproductive in the opening hour. Giovanni Dos Santos gave Mexico the lead just after half time and with Sneijder’s goal late on, both sets of fans were preparing for the anxieties of extra time. That is until the flying Dutchman, Robben, took a theatrical tumble in the box winning the Netherlands a dubious penalty. Jan Huntelaar dispatched clinically and the Dutch marched on, Mexico’s curse still very much intact.
 
Costa Rica 1(5p) – 1(3p) Greece
 
A match between two teams with defensive priorities though so far only one team, Costa Rica, had been defending solidly. This was most probably a reflection on the goalkeeping heroics of Kaylor Navas. Fans did not get the game they expected. Both teams, seemingly having decided to leave their defensive priorities in the group stage, came to play. Captains Karagounis and Ruiz, both Fulham players, lead their respective teams in their own way: Karagounis with his driving forwards in possession, his persistence, and his forceful determination; and Ruiz with his delicate touches and quick feet. It was Los Ticos who made the breakthrough as Ruiz slotted home a Bolanos assist. Not long after, in the 66th minute, the Costa Ricans lost their defensive lynchpin, Duarte, to a second yellow. With the extra man Greece were expected to take advantage, but they didn’t. They couldn’t. Los Ticos were holding out yet still managed to work many good chances of their own. At the death the Greeks equalised through Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Game on. Extra time beckoned and Greece still had the man advantage. They couldn’t make it pay dividends though and paid the ultimate price by going down in the ensuing penalty shootout 5-3. Los Ticos marched on.
 
France 2 – 0 Nigeria
 
France were coming of a decent showing in the group stage, save for a dull 0-0 against Ecuador in their final game, whereas Nigeria were buoyed by a valiant defeat to Argentina. France were solid in defence which gave them a stable base from which to build their attacks. They were in the ascendency but didn’t manage to convert a chance until Pogba’s header in the 79th minute, a result of a goalkeeping error by Enyeama. Nigeria had little choice but to venture out in search of an equaliser. In the end Nigerian defender Yobo managed to get his name on the scoresheet, however it would be forever marked as an own goal as he turned the ball into his own net from a cross from Valbuena. A standard issue game that saw the French progress.
 
Germany 2 – 1 Algeria
 
Having qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in their history a period of delirium was short-lived as they learned of the German test ahead of them. At their tournament debut in 1982 the North Africans defeated West Germany 2-1. In the penultimate game in that same group in 1982 the West Germans went 1-0 up against Austria, and when both teams realised that the current result would see them both qualify for the next round they proceeded to play out the Disgrace of Gijon (Gijon, in Spain, being the location for the match). Both Austria and West Germany made no effort to further the score. All this at the expense of Algeria, who’d beaten Chile the day before. It was this game that forced FIFA into ensuring final group games were played simultaneously. In summary, there’s history. And the Algerians had revenge in their sights. For the majority of regular time the Algerian defensive system was stifling the Germans, who were only too willing to continue attacking. Algeria had hoped to win something on the counter and came close a few times. Into extra time and it was Germany who had the legs with Schurrle turning in a Muller cross with some nifty, perhaps lucky, footwork. Ozil confirmed the victory with a standard issue tap in on 120 minutes. There was still time for Djabou to pull one back for Algeria in what was recorded as the latest World Cup goal in history. Die Mannschaft push on.
 
Argentina 1 – 0 Switzerland
 
Prior to this game Iran was the only team to have effectively neutralised Argentina’s attack for a full 90 minutes. It was a solo effort of football elegance from Messi that undid the Iranians on that occasion. Switzerland looked to have built on Iran’s defensive performance whilst still affording them plenty of attacking opportunities. In this game they almost pulled off the perfect heist by shutting out Messi, Higuain, and Di Maria. It was again the little magician Messi who would pop up with the decisive action very late into extra time. He won possession near the halfway line and started off on one of his familiar mazy forward runs. Instead of going the whole way he veered left but angled a ball off to the right into the path of a rushing Di Maria who curved the winner. In the two minutes remaining Hitzfeld’s Switzerland had the chance to take the game to penalties when Dzemaili headed a free-kick delivery into the upright and couldn’t manage to fumble in the rebound of which he knew very little. Argentina’s tone was set, pass to Messi and hope he pulls off something special.
 
Belgium 2 – 1 USA
 
Passion. Pace. Chances. Breathlessness. That last one was probably reserved for the fans in the stadium or on the edge of their seats at home. This was the game that captured the giddy excitement of the USA’s fans back home, those always identified as fans of convenience. The USMNT played like men with a fire burning inside; they ran for every ball, they fought for every inch but Belgium were able to counter that with a solid defence and attacking threats of their own. Hazard didn’t shine, but others did. Young Origi is certainly destined for big things, he played his part. Again and again, time after time, Tim Howard had to pull off save after save to repel the Belgians. It was the goalkeeping performance of the World Cup and it’s always a sign of an intense contest when the best player on the field is on the losing team. The game went into extra time, like so many had before, and Belgium got the upper hand quickly through playmaker De Bruyne finally breaching Howard’s goal. Along came romper stomper Romelu Lukaku and did what he does best, score. The USA pulled one back through young Julian Green, a cheeky volley in what was surely his first touch in a World Cup; they could do no more. Time was up and Belgium had won.
 
Stay tuned, part 4 on the way.

2014 World Cup Review – Part 2 (Groups E-H)

Messi carried Argentina through the group...

Messi carried Argentina through the group…

Group E
 
Group E was probably the most ‘run of the mill’ group in terms of which nations were expected to progress and which nations actually progressed. France and Switzerland were clear favourites and both squads did the job required of them to progress. Switzerland, built around a nucleus of Shaqiri and Xhaka, needed an injury time winner from substitute Seferovic to see off an energetic Ecuador. Meanwhile, France comfortably saw off Honduras 3-0 but came out of it battered and bruised, a result of the Central American’s markedly physical play. The game of the group came when the two European nations faced off against each other in each other’s second game. A game of goals, seven in total. After 73 minutes France were 5-0 and had booked their round of 16 spot, but the Swiss rallied and although they were never going to win the game at this stage they still were able to produce two goals to reduce the deficit. The final goal of the game was a superb first time volley from Xhaka, the ball having been lofted to him from deep. The final group games saw Shaqiri produce the first left footed hat-trick in World Cup history to help the Swiss send Honduras packing while France could only negotiate a disappointing and dull 0-0 draw with Ecuador.
 
Group F
 
The opening game of Group F saw Brazil’s eternal rivals, Argentina, take to the field in the Maracana facing up against World Cup debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina. No such beginners luck for the boys from the Balkans as defender Kolasinac turned the ball into his own net on 3 minutes. It took until the 65th minute for the main man Messi, who everyone was expecting to do something, to do something and when he did, boy did he deliver. Typical of his style, he picked the ball up near the halfway line, seemingly nonplussed, just jogging. Snap! After a quick dummy, a lightning burst of speed, and a neat one-two with Higuain Messi wraps his left-foot around the ball and it glides beyond Begovic and into the net. Messi lead the Bosnian defenders on such a merry dance that two of them collided with each other, left in the little man’s wake. Next up was Iran 0, Nigeria 0; nothing to discuss here. Again, Messi came to the rescue of the Albiceleste during injury time against a superbly resolute Iran, slotting home a phenomenal curving shot. The lead up to this goal was memorable as Messi had all 10 of Iran’s outfield players between him and the goal when he picked up possession. Nigeria then overcame Bosnia 1-0, effectively ending the hopes of the debutants, while Nigeria pushed Argentina all the way but couldn’t make their chances count against a suspect Argentinian defence; Argentina ran out 3-2 winners in an end to end affair, Messi with a brace. Bosnia managed to nab an impressive consolation win, 3-1 against Iran however both teams had already been eliminated by this stage.
 
Group G
 
Group G was considered by many to rival Group B for the title of the group of death however when Germany trounced Portugal 4-0 in the opening game, onlookers would have been forgiven for thinking that it may not be as competitive a group as originally thought. How wrong those people were. Although producing a poor opening showing, in which hot head Pepe shocking no one by being sent off, Portugal rallied somewhat to salvage a late 2-2 draw with the USA. USA went on to lose 1-0 to Germany, providing stiff opposition for the Europeans, and producing a battle between the German coaches Klinsmann and Low. In the end Portugal beat Ghana however neither team were able to qualify, despite both teams being in with a shot for qualification going into the final game.
 
Group H
 
Finally we make it to Group H, which pitted widely touted over-rated/under-rated light/dark horses Belgium against Algeria, South Korea, and fellow Europeans, Russia. The first game kicked off as expected with Belgium defeating Algeria 2-1. Belgium’s first goal came courtesy of Fellaini in the 70th minute, which, bizarrely, is the earliest goal scored by Belgium of their six goals during the tournament. Russia’s 1-1 draw with Korea was salvaged after the Koreans took the lead from what can only be described as a football blackout on the part of Russian goalkeeper Akinfeev, who fumbled the ball into his own net. This error could well be what cost the Russian’s two points and a place in the round of 16. The remainder of the group was fairly standard issue save for the exhilarating Algerian display against and partly abject Korea. The Northern Africans were dynamic and fluid and slotted three past Korea’s keeper before half time. The Koreans solidified somewhat and nabbed two consolation goals on the counter-attack. At the final whistle of the final group games it was Belgium and the exciting Algeria who had progressed to the round of 16.
 
Stay tuned, part 3 to come…

2014 World Cup Review – Part 1 (Groups A-D)

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The football party is now at an end, however the party will continue. Or will it. The nation of Brazil is surely harbouring mixed emotions regarding their hosting of the World Cup, which has been marred not only by their Government’s questionable funding of the football festival but also by their team’s performances on the pitch. In contrast, from a non-Brazilian perspective the verdict is overwhelmingly positive. There may have been a few rough edges but the consensus is that this edition has been one of the best ever. It’s because of this that it is worth reflecting.

In four years’ time people will need reminding that the 2014 World Cup began with oversize walking broccoli and hip-hop artist Pitbull sporting high-waisted pants not seen since the TV serials of the 70s. The opening ceremony generally draws in those who incorrectly set their alarm clocks an hour earlier by mistake. If the World Cup did cost Brazil a total of $15.6b, as reported, then it is safe to say very little of it went towards the opening ceremony.

Group A

After the giant walking trees had vacated the Brazilians finally got what they had waited 64 years for: the Selecao taking to the field in a World Cup on home soil. Their jubilation was short-lived as Marcelo dragged the ball into his own net after 11 minutes however it didn’t take long for the golden boy, Neymar, to produce what was expected of him and slot home the equaliser. A second goal from Neymar, from the penalty spot and a third from Oscar for good measure, iced the cake and the Selecao were up and running at the expense of Croatia. Not a bad opening stansa. The rest of Group A wasn’t much chop, with Brazil and Mexico progressing to the round of 16 with Cameroon and Croatia among the first to head for the exit.

Group B

Onto blockbuster Group B, which started with one of the shocks of the tournament with Van Persie’s phenomenal flying header, a defining image of this World Cup, contributing to the Dutch’s routing of defending champions Spain, 5-1. This was a result that didn’t just drop your jaw, it was a result that was era-defining, or more specifically, era-ending. Spain would go on to lose meekly to Chile while registering a meaningless win over Australia to be sent home. After the astonishing achievement of winning three major competitions in a row, an achievement that puts this La Furia Roja team in the pantheon of greats, they bowed out of this World Cup in a somewhat macabre fashion. It would appear that the fruit is at its most ripe (2008, 2010, 2012) just before it rots (2014). The image of an isolated and dejected Iniesta walking off the pitch against Chile tells all. The story of the group is surely the Netherlands, who obtained maximum points, scoring 10 goals, but were given their first, and arguably toughest test, by Australia in their second game. Australia went 2-1 ahead thanks to a dubious penalty for handball and a pant-wetting volley from the man for the big occasion Tim Cahill. In the end, energetic Chile finished the group a comfortable second, progressing with the Dutch.

Group C

The story of Group C centred on James Rodriguez. Not known on the world stage before the tournament, his three goals in three games catapulted the midfielder to equal top of the scoring charts. He was fundamental to Colombia’s three wins over other Group C combatants Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. The Japanese came into this tournament, having been the first to qualify, on the back of some impressive attacking performances in Asian qualifying despite a valiant, but ultimately poor, showing at the Confederations Cup in 2013. The best the Blue Samurai could offer was a point against Greece in their second group game before being trounced by an increasingly impressive Colombia 4-1. Rodriguez’ cheeky dink in the 90th minute was not only icing on the cake for the South Americans, but showed the boy from Colombia has the technical skills to rival the best in the business. Elsewhere, Ivory Coast’s long-running golden generation failed to perform again in what is surely their last major tournament together (key players like Drogba, the Toure brothers, Barry, and Zokora are all the wrong side of 30); a win against Japan, in which Drogba proved a morally-boosting substitute, was the highlight but ultimately they bowed out in gut-wrenching circumstances as they gave away a late penalty against Greece in the final group game. Colombia and Greece would live to fight another day.

Group D

Group D, the not-so-quite group of death, proved to be difficult for those expected to breeze through and wasn’t difficult for those expected to struggle. Costa Rica, lead by a rejuvenated Bryan Ruiz and their manager, Jorge Luis Pinto, provided the second shock of the tournament by comfortably swatting aside a Suarez-less Uruguay 3-1. Some would say Uruguay lacked a little bite in this game and it was in this game that we saw the tournament’s first red card go to Uruguay’s Maxi Pereira. The penalty in this game, converted by Uruguay, was one of only two goals conceded by Costa Rica over their five game run which ended at the quarter-final stage – the best defence in the tournament. Before biting Chiellini in Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Italy in the final group game, Suarez took a chunk out of England’s World Cup ambitions by slotting two ferocious goals past Joe Hart, winning 2-1 and confining both England and Italy to group stage exits.

Stay tuned, part 2 is on it’s way…

2014 World Cup: the best and the worst…

World Cup 2014

A lasting image of WC2014…

Simply because it’s worth reviewing!
Best game
 
The World Cup is the arguably the peak of football. The semi-finals are fought between the heavyweights, the contenders, and the expectation is for entertainment and high quality. All this makes Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation, at the semi-final stage and in front of the world, all the more curious. It’s a throwback to the World Cups of 1930s and 1950s where emphasis on defence was most certainly a low priority. The perplexing nature of this game was that the team that attacked well also defended well, and the team that attacked poorly defended woefully; that mixture is rare. After the third goal went in you wanted to look away but couldn’t. You wanted to feel sympathy for Brazil but your mind wouldn’t let you. There’s an ever so small pang of guilt when I recall how much I enjoyed watching this game.
 
Worst game
 
If I had to decide the worst game without giving weight in terms of importance, I’d say it’s neck and neck between Iran v Nigeria and Argentina v Netherlands. Because the latter was a semi-final, it has to take the cake as the worst game of the tournament. It’s inexcusable for teams to play so cautiously, so tentatively, with such attacking prowess on the field (let’s not forget we had Messi, Lavezzi, Higuain, Aguero, Robben, Sneijder on the pitch).
 
Best goal
 
As an Australian I’m going to struggle to convince my impartiality, but the goal of the tournament was unequivocally Tim Cahill’s volley against the Netherlands. It was technically perfect in its execution and was produced under pressure from one of the defenders of the tournament, Ron Vlaar. The cross from McGowan arced in from very near the halfway line; it basically came in over Cahill’s shoulder. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the Van Baston-esque strike was rifled into the net (off the crossbar) by Cahill’s less preferred left foot. Woof. An honourable mention goes to James Rodriguez’ strike against Uruguay. For many this is the goal of the tournament, however (and this is where I prove my impartiality through argument) hitting a volley with your body over the top of the ball is always easier than striking a volley across your body. Yes, Rodriguez’ strike was made more elegant by his chested touch to set up the volley, but he also hit it with his favoured left foot.
 
Best player
 
Despite being pipped by Cahill in the best goal category, I’m going with James Rodriguez for the player of the tournament. He scored four goals in his first four games, and six goals in the tournament overall (the highest goal scorer, not bad for a midfielder). He bossed the Colombian midfield and gave them the ascendency in each of their games, even in their loss against a lucky Brazil. He wasn’t a widely known player before this World Cup, but everyone wants his signature now. Honourable mention goes to Leo Messi. I am loathe to compare him to Maradonna with respect to skill, but there is definitely one parallel that cannot be escaped: Messi in 2014, like Maradonna in 1986, single-handedly dragged Argentina through this World Cup to the final.
 
Best moment
 
Those few minutes where Australia carried a lead against the Netherlands, a team whose previous game saw them conquer Spain 5-1. Honourable mentions go to Kroos’ celebration after he had put Germany 3-0 up against Brazil in the semi-final. Celebration is perhaps the wrong word, it was more a reaction. It’s almost as if his brain had been caught between a dream and what was actually taking place and he wasn’t sure which one was real.
 
Worst moment
 
Easy: the Suarez bite on Chiellini. A very low point in football let alone this World Cup. What disappoints further is the Uruguay team’s (and by extension, the Uruguayan nation) defending of the player in the media. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth to think that he is now effectively being rewarded with a 75 million pound transfer to one of the best clubs in history. It doesn’t exactly send a great message to young players. Honourable mention goes to Cameroon’s Alex Song, who, inexplicably, used his elbow to karate chop Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic in the back. What was he thinking?
 
Team of the tournament (4-2-3-1)
 
GK: Neuer (Germany)
DEF: Lahm (Germany), Yepes (Colombia), Hummels (Germany), Blind (Netherlands)
CDMF: Khediera (Germany), Mascherano (Argentina)
CMF: Muller (Germany), Rodriguez (Colombia), Robben (Netherlands)
CF: Messi (Argentina)
 

England to Shaw up left-back position…

This is just a minor, meaningless (coming from an Australian), and probably destined to be unnoticed commentary on England’s current left-back dilemma.
 
I do not follow the England national football team. To be honest, why would you? You’re faced with mediocrity every time internationals week rolls around, and when it comes time to don the tournament mentality there is inevitably an average finish somewhere in the round of 16 or quarter finals. I do however, like to follow the storm of desperate attention and pressures that constantly plague the players and the rest of the England setup. How often do we hear former players come out and comment on the incredible pressures associated with donning the three lions jersey? Despite being the undisputed home of professional football (a fact the country appears to be holding onto desperately when faced with their noticeable decline in the world of international football – it’s almost a hey, remember us?) they are quickly realising that, apart from losing credibility, they are no longer able to use this argument to coast through the international quagmire.
 
Now that that nonsense is out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks: England’s left-back position. Right now there is an unquestionable number one choice for the role: Everton’s Leighton Baines. From a few years ago he was highlighted as a potential successor to Ashley Cole, who, let’s face it, has been given a lot of margin for error in the England shirt over the past decade, however it took an injury to Cole to allow Baines to have an extended run in the starting eleven; a run that has now proven him to be the incumbent. Now though, there is a third possibility, Southampton youngster, Luke Shaw. Shaw only gained his first cap during England’s 1-0 win over Denmark recently so you can’t make full conclusions of his performance in the white shirt, however you can certainly make positive conclusions from his past two years with the Saints. In his recent Guardian article, Barney Ronay broaches the same subject, however I think it’s his following, perhaps offhanded, statement that provides a fantastic basis from which to base the remainder of the argument: ‘Shaw is a more obvious attacking presence, more likely to burst forward and disturb an opposition defence, less likely at this stage in his career to expertly shackle Cristiano Ronaldo in a knockout game. Simultaneously, this is an argument in favour of both Shaw and Cole for the second left-back spot in Brazil. Further, it justifies Baines’s selection as number one as he is adept at the attacking full-back roll, like Shaw, and is well versed in his defensive positioning, which has now become the ageing Cole’s strength.
 
If we concentrate on the immediate future (which appears to be the norm within the England setup), which means Brazil, then Ronay’s point takes on heightened significance. The other teams in Group D, aside from Italy, present conundrums with pacey wide players, in which case full-backs will need to perform defensive duties well. If they make it to the round of 16, the technique and speed of one of Japan and Columbia will most likely pop up. Of course, England are not a technical team and cannot play through the middle like Spain therefore they will rely on their width, meaning the full-backs become vital in the attacking third. This is where the grip on the Ashley Cole argument gets a bit slippery, especially when you consider the games taking place in Manaus, which many in the northern hemisphere are worried about in terms of humidity having a marked impact on player’s stamina.
 
This is a decision that will ultimately be made by Hodgson and his advisors. They will be wary of choosing youth for the sake of youth however they will also be aware of the very real possibility that, at some point, they will have to shut up shop and defend for their life. Each scenario presents a swing in favour of either Shaw or Cole. For England to look forward and embrace the future, then Shaw is the no brainer, the one who will provide a solid selection given his noteworthy Premier League experience yet still deliver that spark of youthful enthusiasm that warms the heart. For England to be solid defensively at the slight expense of an attacking threat from left-back, especially in Manaus, then Cole is your man.
 
Either way Hodgson will face heavy criticism but that is part of the job he’s taken on. This is most probably one of the easier of the decisions to be made, with the midfield cull looking like a 7×7 rubics cube. Good luck Hodgson, I do not envy you.

How to feel about Australia’s loss to Ecuador…

Here’s a confession: I’m a football fan who is prone to exaggerated first reactions. Whether it be a potential penalty that the ref failed to blow for or an attacking midfielder that has passed sideways when there was clearly a through ball on, I will invariably feel my internal pressures rise and make some sort of tainted remark complemented by a disinterested wave of a hand. So when Edison Mendez was able to slot home from close range to finalise proceedings in Australia’s overnight loss to Ecuador in London, you can imagine my uncomfortable fury. This resulted in the following post to my Facebook page:

‘To my dear Socceroos, I suppose it’s only expected that you can play one half of the best football I’ve seen you play and be 3-0 up, only then to play the worst half I’ve ever seen, and lose 4-3. Stop doing this to me. Stop building me up just to tear me down. We’re part of a destructive relationship at the moment and I need to take a break. I need to see other teams. It’s not me, it’s you.’

Admittedly, it’s more muted than my usual outbursts, but after a few hours spent dwelling on the game and how it panned out I made some alarmingly forward emotional progress. My newfound conclusion was that my initial reaction was uncalled for (no surprises there). However, what was unexpected was where I ended up. In the same way one would feel watching a younger sibling graduate, I felt slightly more endeared to the Socceroos; there was a new warmth about them. Yes, I can hear you mocking me, however let’s think about this. Postecoglou is under strict instruction from FFA to reshape and rebirth the Socceroos with a focus on 2015, 2018, and even 2022 beyond that perhaps. It’s a match made in heaven considering Postecoglou’s modus operandi is centred on giving young potential a shot. This game against Ecuador is surely that methodology in progress. You can bet your bottom dollar that Verbeek and Osieck would not have risked playing with such a young starting eleven (the back four probably had less than 10-15 caps between them). There is not one argument that can negate the fact that Australia’s first half performance vindicated Postecoglou’s vision and selections.

Following that, at a glance there is not much to be gained from the second half. At a glance, no. But this is youth, and what better way to test their performance under pressure than playing with 10 men against an opponent that earned fourth spot in the hotly contested CONMEBOL qualifying. There were still some shining moments: Luongo can pick a pass in the heat of midfield, Good was solid (I feel more secure with him at centre-back rather than Lucas Neill), Rogic is unlike anything Australia has produced before, and Cahill still has the ability to pop up and produce the goods. Oar and Leckie shone and sped around, their movement without the ball key to stifling Ecuador in the first half. Probably the moment where I most wanted to crawl into a hole was the unfortunate dismissal of Langerak. I rate the Dortmund backup very highly, however I do not rate his poor tackle. One sure conclusion is that Ryan has secured the No. 1 spot from here on in and that is not only because of Langerak’s swing and miss this morning, it’s simply because he is not playing football, he warms the bench. This is a young Socceroos and for that first 45 minutes they were agile and swift and enthusiastic.

This game was all about the Socceroos playing with their own game plan rather than attempting to block someone else’s. It’s a good look and matches, to perfection, our attacking and fighting mentality. To Ange and the team, I am sorry for my initial reaction. Together, we can go far.

Where did the ‘manager’ go?

Can someone please tell Mr. Levy how paltry his ego is compared to the world of football?

The next Florentino Perez?

Football is a business. Each and every time a football fan hears those words, a small part of them dies. Fans pay money and invest vast amounts of time building such a deep connection to a team, and in return they leave the number crunching and the strategic decision-making to those in the hotseats: the CEOs, the Chairmen, the Saudi Sheiks, the conglomerate owners etc. These men and women are not the face of a club, yet it is troubling that we hear of them in the media the same amount as a club’s manager. It is easier now than it has been at any time in the history of football to name CEOs and board members of many top flight clubs. Consequently, the authority and influence of the manager is decreasing. How is it that the manager, in today’s game, is a position of such incredible vulnerability and insecurity?   Where did the manager go?

Sage wisdom

Our first stop as we stroll down the lane of football incompetence is the crew behind the decision to oust Perth Glory manager, Alistair Edwards. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and it was quite clear that the smoke signals had begun when Edwards signed both of his sons to Perth Glory prior to the 13/14 A-League season. By his own admission, Glory owner, Tony Sage, warned Edwards that criticisms would come his way and that, ultimately, it would be his kids that would suffer. Sage by name, sage by reputation it would seem. Fast forward to December this year and club captain, Jacob Burns, was an unused substitute for his first game upon return from injury (a 2-0 defeat to Melbourne Victory). Edwards’ son Ryan was in the starting lineup, while older brother Cameron was a second half substitute. After the loss, a significant exchange between senior players (reported to be Burns, Vukovic, Thwaite, and McGarry) and manager Edwards took place, with Burns reportedly asking ‘Do I need to have Edwards written on the back of my shirt before I can get a start in this team?’. Does Burns forget that he is on his return from injury, and that his coach has every right to stick with a team that put 4 goals past Wellington Phoenix the week before? During the week that followed a very public rift emerged between Burns and manager Edwards. Apparently CEO Jason Brewer, a mining exec by trade, piped up with an absurd notion to install a selection panel that sits above the coach, the sole function of which would be to select each matchday squad. If the aim is to completely undermine the authority of the manager, then there is surely no better proposal. There is no doubt that the clearly inept Brewer’s idea was quashed immediately, but it was Edward’s turn to put forward an idea, strip Burns of the club captaincy. Brewer panicked, said no, and sacked Edwards.

For the amount of times we hear the cliche ‘no player is bigger than the club’, it is remarkable how much sway players have in the matter of the manager. In this instance there is very little option but to lay the blame on Burns, who appears to have little justification to offer for his actions other than something along the lines of ‘because I wasn’t picked’. Brewer’s colossal ineptitude at even the most simple football matters is a sign of how  non-football people are hurting the game, and how questionable Sage’s appointment of Brewer is. Sage has passion, no one denies him this, however there is now a precedent in the Perth Glory dressing room. In the halls of NIB Stadium, Jacob Burns, the player, is untouchable. And that is in no way a positive thing for Perth Glory, and automatically restricts the decision-making of any incoming manager.

White Hart, cold blood

What haven’t we heard about the mess at Tottenham at the moment?. This mess is probably better described as 10 managerial carcasses since 2001, the most recent of which is Andre Villas-Boas. Remarkably, February 2001 marks the commencement of the chairmanship  of Daniel Levy. Long story short, in Andre Villas-Boas’ final press conference  as Tottenham Manager, after the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool, it was his silence and hesitation that answered the question of whether the key summer signings had been his idea. Of the seven high-profile signings, Villas-Boas has all but admitted that Eriksen, Lamela, Chadli, and Chiriches were signings made from the boardroom and not the manager’s office. Let us take some time to separate the roles within the club here. Villas-Boas was hired  as the man to run the football operations at Tottenham Hotspur, that is, until Levy brought in Franco Baldini in mid-2013. Levy and the rest of the board, theoretically, should be resigned to decision-making for all of the finances, marketing, promotion, stadium matters etc. Any attempt by the board to actively choose which players to sign, which is clearly what happened here, is seen as a blatant undermining of the manager, who was hired for those exact reasons. Yes, Levy’s companies may have a majority stake in the club’s ownership, but why hire such a high-profile manager if you are going to force four new players onto him and then fire him after six months when he can’t make it work? That’s ludicrous. His time at Porto and last season at Tottenham have shown that Villas-Boas has a specific style and it is clear from Tottenham’s awfully inconsistent start to the season that these boardroom signings aren’t commensurate to the way he plays the game. Levy appears to be taking  a some serious tips from the Florentino Perez school of running a football club, which is to hang your shadow low over the manager. There is a history of links between the Tottenham and Real Madrid, with extensive communications occurring during the transfers of Modric and Bale, even Baldini was an executive at Real Madrid prior to walking into White Hart Lane. Perhaps Levy feels he can be a heavyweight from the boardroom. Perhaps he has visions of a Perez-like reign at Tottenham. If he continues, then apart from wasting the talent on the pitch, he’ll also end up with 10 more managerial sackings in the next 12 years. Levy needs to take a whole lot more blame that he currently is.

No chance of a Tan in Cardiff

You cannot feel anything other than a helpless sympathy for Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay. The Scot has found himself at the centre of an absurd set of circumstances. During Mackay’s first year in charge (11/12) the club made significant headway but only just lost out on promotion to the Premier League. In the off season the billionaire Malaysian backers – headed by Vincent Tan – would only invest heavily if they were assured of the club’s change of colours from blue – traditional colours worn since 1908 – to red, and a change in the club’s symbol from the bluebird to a red dragon. Reluctantly, the changes were made and the millions were invested and Mackay managed automatic promotion to the Premier League by winning the 12/13 Championship by 8 points. From a fan’s perspective, Mackay was the man. Also, the pang of an immense change of tradition was made slightly more bearable by the guarantee of Premier League football.

This is when things started to go awry. Cardiff and Mackay were holding their own in the Premier League when Tan decided, inexplicably, to place Mackays key advisor, Iain Moody on indefinite leave. Even more perplexing is his decision to appoint a 23-year old Kazakh, Alisher Apsalyamov, in Moody’s place. It is reported that Apsalyamov’s only other involvement with the club was painting sections of the Cardiff City Stadium during the off season; there are also allegations that he is simply a friend of Tan’s son. That was in October and since then there has been a stream of quotes coming from Tan that suggest his current manager is not up to the task. Mackay has handled the public criticisms from his boss with a class befitting of an absolute gentleman. He has said all the right things and hasn’t stooped to entering into a public slinging match with Tan. What’s more is the Mackay has the full backing of the Cardiff City fans, which, you would think, puts Tan in a bit of a corner. Not likely. After Cardiff’s loss to Liverpool recently it was confirmed that Tan shot off an email to his manager detailing his incompetence and providing Mackay with an ultimatum: resign or be dismissed. Mackay remained resolute and stated firmly that he would not be resigning from the club. The media and fan backlash towards Tan has been of a level to force Tan into withdrawing his ultimatum. Current chairman, Mehmet Dalman – who is firmly in Mackay’s camp – issued a statement confirming that Mackay would remain in charge for the foreseeable future.

*            *            *

It is acknowledged that if a wealthy owner pours some serious cash into a club, then it only fair that they retain some part of the decision-making process. However, this decision-making should be restricted to strategic decisions about a club’s image, stadium matters, sponsorships, advertising, marketing. Of course, they can provide direction and guidance on who they should get in as manager, but surely, once that manager is within the club, the owner/chairman – or whatever the club’s setup – should take a back seat and let the person they’ve chosen to make footballing decisions make those decisions. At Perth Glory, at Tottenham Hotspur, and at Cardiff City, none of the managers have been given any confidence from the boardroom or from the ownership. They have been let down by the people that brought them into the system in the first place. They have been, somewhat, ushered into scapegoat territory by figures who’s decision-making has been questionable from the get go. These days, the position of the manager is not the figurehead that it once was. It is being rewritten by the bankrollers and the boardroom.

What’s going on in the mind of Mou?

An increasingly maligned figure in Madrid...

An increasingly maligned figure in Madrid…

Something is up at the Bernabeu. It’s not just recently that so many headlines have centred on the management of Real Madrid. However the past week has seen a handful of strange stories come out of the Spanish capital, which is enough to make this writer break from the traditional (and let’s face it, rather dry) match analysis and try to delve a little deeper into what is going on.

Ronaldo to go?

The same old story surrounds Ronaldo: will he stay or will he go? It is known that he is unhappy. It has been well documented. The speculation generally has two conclusions: either a stalling contract renewal, or his view that he is under-appreciated by the fans. Either way, Ronnie is not the most content player in the dressing room. In the shadow of the recently revealed UEFA Champions League Round of 16 draw, where Real Madrid will test themselves against Manchester United, it has arisen that Ronaldo seeks a return to Old Trafford – a return to the club that he feels is his ‘home’. It is ridiculously unlikely that United would hand over the €1 billion required as part of his buyout clause. Of course, United are not the only names being paraded in the media. Paris-Saint-Germain are there or there abouts. Considerable voice has been given to the idea that PSG are set to make a bid to steal both Ronaldo and under-the-pump Mourinho away from Madrid in a deal that would perhaps see €200 million change hands.

Wherever the duo end up, whether it be together or not, it is unlikely that a change in scenery will be a fix to their difficulties. Ronaldo wants to be front and centre. As much as he plays for the team, he wants the spotlight, he wants the microphone, he wants sole-star status. To a degree he already has that, although to the detriment of his current team. Mourinho wants the manager’s equivalent. He wants complete control. His public spats and feuds with Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez (far from a pushover himself) have made potential suitors aware of the way Mourinho would operate. How many boardrooms/presidents would be willing to sacrifice so much control of their club? It is clear that the any movement by the two would just take the problems from one part of the world to another.

Also, another thing to think about is what happens to Mourinho’s clubs in the years that succeed his reign. Porto are a mainstay in the Champions League, however they are yet to scale the heights of 2003/04; Chelsea only regained the Premier League trophy under Ancelotti in 2009/10; while Inter are just starting to piece together some fluidity of play and stability off the pitch. They ultimately fail to live up to the jolt of success of the preceeding two seasons. Is it at all plausible that Real Madrid could fall into the same trap? Will they be at all affected by Mourinho’s wake?

Ser Iker on the bench.

Another puzzler in the internal workings of Mourinho is his decision to have Iker Casillas, Madrid’s first choice keeper, unrivalled, since 2002, on the bench for the recent match away to Malaga. The choice to play understudy Adan against a fellow Champions League team is perplexing considering the lad has only ever had four La Liga starts. Of course Mourinho stated that his decision was ‘technical’ and that ‘Adan is in better form than Iker’. Say what you want (and with the maintained respect for developing Adan), but how is the world supposed to believe that Casillas is no longer the best keeper in Madrid? He is by far the best in Spain and rivals any other goalkeeper across the world. Casillas, ever the statesman, said in response to his benching, “if he [the manager] doesn’t have to justify himself when you play, neither does he have to when you don’t….but above any individual player is the team.” In probably the most underdone statement of recent football history, he noted that the relationship between he and his manager was one fuelled by “healthy competitiveness”. Whatever that means, Iker.

The fans speak.

Now, it’s all very well and good that Real Madrid is having an internal meltdown, but how does this affect the fans? Undoubtedly the most high pressure and media-intensive football club, Real Madrid also has the most online fans of any club in the world. So what do they think? Well, the kicker comes from an unexpected source. Pro-Real Madrid media Marca (a newspaper that accused members of the Barca team of taking performance enhancing drugs, a newspaper that openly and often discusses the conspiracy of referees and how they work with Barca to the detriment of Real Madrid etc) staged a poll with the simple question: should Madrid sack Mourinho? 82.4% of respondents answered in the positive. Yes, in the view of Madridistas, Mourinho needs to go.

One thing is for sure, he won’t be sacked before the end of this season. Perez will not want to dish out Mourinho’s sumptuous pay-out package and give him the satisfaction. The big thing on Mourinho’s mind right now is this year’s Champions League. If he wins it he will have given Madrid its 10th European Cup/Champions League, the famed and elusive ‘La Decima’. Madridistas will be torn. They will finally have that elusive 10th European crown, however they may view it to be tainted by Mourinho’s presence.

No matter his wherabouts next year, if he wins the Champions League, he will have left a winner – the only feeling Mourinho knows.