Monthly archive

June 2016

Finishing Touch

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Gerard Pique’s winning goal in Spain’s victory against the Czech Republic on Monday was a thumping reminder of Spain’s persistent goal-scoring drought. After Spain was held scoreless for 86 minutes and with the team fresh out of ideas, Pique and Sergio Ramos were summoned forward to provide aerial threats for one final barrage of crosses.

It didn’t take long for Iniesta to find his Barcelona teammate for the winner, but after dominating possession and passing the ball all over the field, the desperate measures required for Spain to score one goal are concerning. Without a striker to rely on, Spain leaned on its centerbacks to deliver a goal and rescue the result.

This has been Spain’s biggest weakness since its disappointing title defense at the 2014 World Cup. With David Villa on his last international run, Spain featured turncoat Diego Costa as its striker in Brazil, and the ex-Brazilian failed to deliver anything of substance. Costa has only one goal in 10 caps for Spain and after being left out of the squad for friendlies in March, Vicente del Bosque kept out of the Euros, too.

Costa is just one of several strikers Spain has cycled through during the past few years. Del Bosque has selected Soldado, Negredo, Llorente and now Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz with this summer’s squad, but the goals still haven’t come. Spain has even gone without a striker altogether with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in False 9 roles to no avail.

Morata offers good pace, skill on the ball and determination on defense, but his finishing is not on par with the top strikers in the world. Aduriz was a more than deserving selection after a 32-goal season for Athletic Club, but he is more of target man than someone who can squeeze through the tight spaces Spain is forced to play in.

Although subpar striker play is to blame for Spain’s lack of goals, so is the way its opponents play. Spain is almost better off playing teams of similar quality that attack and go for all three points than it is against Georgia or the Czech Republic and other teams that park the bus and simply try to survive for 90 minutes. When a team possesses the ball for 70 or 80 percent of the match, there are few opportunities to counter, and when the opposition has resigned itself to playing without the ball, there is almost no room to operate around their box.

The Spaniards still play some beautiful stuff in midfield and their creative players are among the best in the world, but with defenses so compact and dug in, they can’t walk the ball into the net. This often forces a team that prefers a tiki-taka style to lump in crosses and to force the ball into fruitless slivers of space. Luckily for Spain, it is one of the few European nations that still possesses reliable full backs, and Jordi Alba and Juanfran are capable of decent defending and making important runs down the flank to open things up.

When all else fails, Spain gets desperate and sends Pique and Sergio Ramos forward, leaving Sergio Busquets back as the break stopper in case of emergency. It is a far cry from the beautiful football Spain is typical associated with, but it is a necessary adjustment that its opponents and its strikers force it to make.

Against the Czech Republic, it worked. Iniesta, who looked like the best midfielder in the world in this game, delivered a brilliant cross that found Pique’s forehead and Spain took a valuable three points in its opening group game, putting a stop to a troubling trend of horrible opening performances under del Bosque. But for Spain to defend its title as the European Champs, it is going to need a lot more production from the men leading its line.

Payet’s World

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France 2 – Romania 1

The 2016 Euros kicked off with a rather tense opener in Paris, with the host nation looking less than dominant in a game many expected them to seize. Luckily for France, it had Dimitri Payet on its side.

Payet was brilliant and would have been the man of the match even had the game ended in a draw. His stunning strike to give France the win was the capper on a sensational and inspired night of football. In what was essentially his debut for France on the big stage, Payet was the driving force for the hosts, racking up an assist on Olivier Giroud’s opening goal and nearly creating another with a beautiful cross that found the foot of Paul Pogba on the volley.

Pogba wasn’t quite as dominant as he should have been against a Romania side with no answer for him in the midfield, but Payet picked up the slack and N’Golo Kante continued his sensational Premier League winning form by bossing the middle of the park. Payet’s winner also sheltered Antoine Griezmann from some criticism. Griezmann’s last competitive match was the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. After missing a critical penalty in that match, Griezmann seemed to lack confidence in front of goal against Romania, squandering a pair of chances that should have been goals.

Despite a pair of underwhelming efforts from two of its stars, France is well on its way past the group stage, and it has two more games to sharpen up before the pressure on them amps to the max.

Switzerland 1 – Albania 0

The Albanians will feel they deserved at least a point after their strong defensive showing against the Swiss. Despite having its captain, central defender Lorik Cana, sent off 10 minutes before halftime, Albania kept its shape for the entirety of the match, even when manager Gianni De Biasi made offensive substitutions in the final 20 minutes.

Albania created a handful of delicious chances on the counter, but its strikers were not up to par. Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had a man of the match performance and made several key saves, but Armando Sadiku and Shkelzen Gashi made his job easier by putting in poor attempts in one-on-one situations.

The Swiss were far from convincing in this game and tactically I think they were inferior to a 10-man Albanian side. Albanian’s solid defense kept danger man Xherdan Shaqiri from creating much in open play (though he did assist the game’s only goal on a set piece) and fullbacks Stephan Lichsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, critical elements of Switzerland’s attack, did not factor into play.

Playing against his brother Taulant, new Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka was the most impressive outfield player on the pitch, controlling the game with a game-high 116 passes. Xhaka is going to dominate the middle of the park for the Gunners in a few months, but if the Swiss are going to get the most out of him in the Euros, they will need their wide players to provide him with more dangerous options going forward.

Wales 2 – Slovakia 1

It should come as no surprise that a Gareth Bale free kick helped Wales take all three points in its first major tournament game in more than 50 years. Bale was less than spectacular in open play, as one might expect with much of the defense’s attention being on him (and Martin Skrtel’s experience defending him), but his trademarked knuckleball free kick was enough of a contribution to spur on his country.

Slovakia were game in this match, though. Had Marek Hamsik’s early effort on goal been a bit more precise, this would have been a much different game. Slovakia did tie the game when Ondrej Duda came off the bench in the 61st minute and scored less than 30 seconds after subbing in, but Welsh substitute Hal Robson-Kanu rescued the three points with a fortunate strike in the 81st minute.

Wales might be extremely reliant on Bale’s brilliance, but with Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen supporting him in the midfield and what looked a sturdy three centerback alignment, it is on its way to having a quarterfinal berth.

England 1 – Russia 1

After going 10-0 in its qualifying group and with some promising young talent coming off strong seasons in the Premier League, England entered this tournament as one of the teams to watch. The Lions might not be ready to challenge Germany, France or Spain for the trophy this year, but the foundation is being built for a World Cup contender.

England’s opening match against Russia, however, was proof that the team is still not reliable on the big stage. Although the Lions dominated possession against Russia and were minutes away from three points, overall England were underwhelming and its infamous tendency to giveaway games reared its ugly head. Eric Dier scored a wonderful free kick that should have sealed a win for England, but Russia tied the game one minute into added time.

Russia were not good in this game. It relied heavily on lumped through balls to Artem Dzyuba, who had a poor game, and it didn’t get enough from Aleksandr Kokorin, who I think is Russia’s best player. But England gave Russia a chance by failing to create chance for the majority of the match. Wayne Rooney looked good in his new midfield role, but I think Ross Barkley and Jamie Vardy should be preferred to Adam Lallana and Dele Alli.

England should still be a sure thing to get past the group stage, but if it can’t generate more on the attack than it did against Russia, Wales might end up on top of Group B.

Quite An Arrival

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Sparse crowds and inflated ticket prices have been the talk of the Copa America Centanario during its opening week. With Neymar out, Luis Suarez sidelined and the United States not quite to the level where they can draw sold out crowds even against the No. 3 team in the FIFA rankings (Columbia), only two nations have been able to pack stadiums across the US: Mexico and Argentina.

It isn’t hard to understand why that is the case. There is no walling off Mexican fans from their beloved El Tri and there is nothing more appealing to any football fan than the chance to see Lionel Messi play in person. Although Mexico have more than delivered for its fans with entertaining wins against Uruguay and Jamaica, fans who ponied up to see Messi in action were left wanting after Argentina’s first 130 minutes in this tournament.

After Messi missed Argentina’s 2-1 win against Chile, he started the Albiceleste’s second game against Panama on the bench as well. The crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago chanted Messi’s name almost from kickoff on Saturday night, pleading with Gerardo Martino to unleash the world’s greatest player on United States soil.

And in the 61st minute, the fans got their wish.

Argentina only lead 1-0 when Messi entered the game, but the result was never in doubt. Given his lack of game fitness, it would have been easy and forgivable for Messi to come on and have a runabout in the game’s final half hour. But this is the best player in the world we are talking about, and after reaching the final in each of Argentina’s past two major tournaments (the World Cup and last year’s Copa America) before falling short, Messi is a man on a mission to deliver a trophy for the Albiceleste.

Messi netted a hat trick in his half-an-hour on the pitch, dazzling with his pinpoint passes and spectacular curved shots. Twice he beat Panama’s keeper one-on-one after having the ball fall to his feet near the edge of the box and his 28-yard free kick was picture perfect. And if coming in and making the result go from an underwhelming 1-0 victory to a crushing 4-0 win wasn’t enough, Messi delivered an inch perfect pass to Marcos Rojo down the left flank in the closing minutes, allowing Rojo to head the ball down to Sergio Aguero for Argentina’s fifth goal.

The Albiceleste have had two good games to start this tournament, and with Messi back in the side they certainly look like the favorite to win the tournament. Argentina’s opening win against Chile was an important one; without Messi, the team played a counterattacking style perfectly suited for Angel Di Maria and controlled Chile in the middle of the park with the duo of Javier Mascherano and Augusto Fernandez, giving Martino a tactical change of plans for his back pocket.

That said, Di Maria was subbed off in the first half against Panama with what is believed to be an abductor injury. Injuries have been the unfortunate story of Di Maria’s international career during the past few years, and Argentina will be losing one its most dangerous weapons if he is forced to miss anything more than its final group stage game against Bolivia.

But with Messi back and with solid players such as Nicolas Gaitan or Erik Lamela around if a Di Maria replacement is necessary, Argentina are still more than capable of winning this tournament. And, as Messi’s arrival proved, the Albiceleste are more than worth the price of admission.

Let Down

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Edinson Cavani must feel cursed. Blessed with an incredible knack for scoring goals, ideal size for a target man and good skill on the ball, Cavani has the makings of a player who can lead the line for some of the top clubs and countries around the world. But in his two most high-profile roles, better players have overshadowed and displaced him from the top dog role he would have had almost anywhere else.

For Uruguay, Barcelona star Luis Suarez has always assumed the spotlight. Whether it be his antics, skills or goals, Suarez is a far more polarizing and electrifying footballer than Cavani. Uruguay often play Cavani alongside Suarez, but Cavani is not tremendous as a support player and has struggled to find his form for the national team.

Unfortunately, Cavani has had his hands tied in a similar predicament during his time at Paris Saint-Germain with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic had a legendary stint at PSG, but that didn’t stop the French giants from purchasing Cavani in 2013 while he was tearing it up for Napoli. PSG boss Laurent Blanc never could find an ideal way to pair Zlatan, who prefers to be a lone striker, and Cavani. Cavani wound up playing Cavani as a winger far more than he would have liked, and his production never matched the results he

This summer seemed to be a potential turning point for Cavani. With Ibrahimovic biding farewell to Paris and PSG seeming to commit to Cavani as its lead striker, it seems Cavani will finally be the star man for one of the top clubs in the world. As for his national team duties, an injury for Suarez meant a chance for Cavani to lead Uruguay past the group stage.

But as is often the case for Cavani, with the sky being the limit, he never got off the ground.

Cavani didn’t make a great impression as the lone talisman for Uruguay last summer. Uruguay got to the quarterfinals at the 2015 Copa America, and his side nearly eliminated Chile, the hosts and eventual champions, but he was sent off in the final game and didn’t score a goal in the tournament. Nevertheless, this year’s tournament offered Cavani a redo.

After serving his suspension for his biting ban last year, an injury has kept Suarez off the pitch this summer, giving Cavani another chance to get Uruguay past the group stage and put his team in a good position for when Suarez was able to return. Instead of carrying his country, Cavani collapsed under the pressure.

Losing to Mexico in Glendale in your opening game is nothing to be embarrassed about; it was practically a home match for Mexico and El Tri has been flying under new manager Juan Carlos Osorio. But Uruguay’s ensuing loss to Venezuela on Thursday was shocking, and it sealed La Celeste’s elimination from the tournament. And of course Cavani would be at fault with his terrible miss in the 88th minute on a shot that would have tied the game and given Uruguay a sliver of hope in its final group game.

To make matters worse, Suarez was throwing a fit on the sideline as he hoped to get into the game during the second half. Even as an ineligible observer, Suarez seemed more likely to deliver for Uruguay than Cavani did.

This makes back-to-back tournaments Cavani has failed deliver as his country’s most dangerous offensive player, and he wasn’t spectacular playing alongside an injured Suarez at the World Cup, either. Cavani’s poor showing this summer is all the more interesting because of the role he is expected to step into with PSG next season; if this is how Cavani performs outside of Suarez’s shadow, why should PSG believe he will do any better filling in for Zlatan?

Cavani is one of the biggest enigmas in world football. He was an exceptional player during his time at Napoli and has had his moments – like his winner in PSG’s Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge this season – with the Parisians and for his country, but whether he will ever return to the form he reached in Serie A remains a mystery.

Perhaps it is as simple as style of play. Cavani might be seen as one of the world’s best No. 9’s if he had spent the past few seasons playing for Atletico Madrid instead of PSG. Few teams around the world dominate the ball like the Parisians, especially in Ligue 1 play, but Cavani has always been better suited for a counter-attacking team that allows his pressing and work rate to shine.

A change of scenery or league might be best for Cavani at this point, but PSG seems intent on giving him a chance to lead the club to glory, which is a chance he was more than deserving of when PSG first bought him from Napoli. But more and more, Cavani’s domination of Serie A seems like his peak, and everything since has been a let down.

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