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Real dominates Rayo Vallecano in Derbi Madrileño

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Nine minutes… that’s how long it took Real Madrid put down Rayo Vallecano in today’s La Liga match.  Sure the two sides played out their 90-plus minutes.  But such was the domination of the European Champions against their tiny Madrid neighbours that the result was really never in doubt.

Carlo Ancelotti changed four players from the mid-week Champions League match at the Bernabeu against Liverpool, not that it truly mattered.  His side still featured two World Cup winners and six nominees for this year’s Ballon D’Or.

Back to the ninth minute, then, and a lovely play that saw Cristiano Ronaldo feed the ball to Toni Kroos at the left of the box, who then slotted it to a galloping Gareth Bale in front of goal.  One-nil Real.

Los Blancos almost doubled their score right away after a similar play; this time, Karim Benzema lanced the ball at James Rodríguez.  The Colombian then quickly turned and passed it to Ronaldo, whose shot went wayward.  The league’s top scorer missed but it was indicative of how Real are playing at the moment; their movement is so good, so fluid that they glide across the pitch, often in anticipation of passes that almost never miss their mark.

That’s not to say that Vallecano were pushovers.  Striker Albert Bueno was on his game, sending a thunderbolt in the 21st minute from 20 yards out that a shaky Keylor Navas struggled to deflect.   The men in red also took to attacking Real’s right flank where Nacho has been playing as a makeshift fullback.  Los Franjirrojos were pesky in the box on set pieces, and a couple moments of Real disarray looked like they would lead to a goal.  On the other end, Vallecano held their lines, and Cristian Álvarez played with awareness, even as the league leaders poured forward with pressure.

But after 40 minutes, that pressure got to the visitors as another cross made its way into the box.  Real centre back Sergio Ramos took the volley on his thigh and deflected the ball into the net, doubling the lead.  It was the defender’s 50th for Real Madrid, a stunning feat for a man whose job is to stop goals, not score them.

However, four minutes later, a bad throw by Navas into a group of Vallecano players caused James to panic with a back pass. Vallecano took advantage and Bueno made no mistake.  It was 2-1 for Madrid but, after a half where the visitors passed and moved as well as their hosts, Vallecano had every reason to feel confident at the break.

That confidence quickly melted away in the second half.   Vallecano seemed to wilt under the onslaught while the home side showed no signs of fatigue from a gruelling mid-week clash.  Real’s third goal in the 55th minute was sublime as Kroos curled the ball around two defenders and into the corner of the net.  Four minutes later, Benzema scored despite being glaringly offside.   Howls of protest from the Vallecano bench fell on deaf ears, although it could be considered payback for other egregious non-calls by the referee, most notably a tackle from behind on James in the first half.   Roberto Trashorras stopped the Colombian as he was about to break, but it generated neither a twitch nor gesture from the officials.

A late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo finished the evening with a 5-1 final score.  Los Nuevos Galacticos have now won 13 straight matches, 10 of those after scoring three goals or more.  The worrying part for their upcoming opponents is that after a post-Lisbon hangover, the champions appear to be picking up momentum.   With a relatively easy schedule over the next six weeks, and progression to the knockout round of the Champions League guaranteed, Madrid will want to keep up their league form before making an almost embarrassingly easy journey to nearby Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December.

Barcelona, Valencia and Atlético supporters might disagree at the moment.  But none of those teams can boast of the firepower that Real possesses. Like Chelsea in England, and Bayern Munich in Germany, Real could be another mega-club that wraps up its league title with plenty of time to spare.

Brent Lanthier

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Colombia, Ivory Coast take Group C pole positions

Group C’s matches were spaced out on Saturday, with the two Group D games between them. Presumably, this was to air the Ivory Coast-Japan game during prime time for Brazil’s significant Japanese population.   Every team in this group played to form, and the results were expected, if not predictable.

GROUP C
Radamel who? Colombia‘s performance was punctuated by an international coming-out party for James Rodriguez.  The Monaco man ran his little heart out and scored a lovely left-footed poke at the end of the match.  This game was also an example of what can go wrong with the current trend of having high-playing fullbacks/wingbacks.  Greece‘s José Holebas was exposed on the left as he failed to track back, allowing Colombia to score early.   Juan Cuadrado was brought in to flood the right and he did just that, setting up the first and third goals.  Greece also missed some great chances, including a sitter by Theo Gekas who headed the ball off the crossbar.  Colombia 3-0 Greece

First of two goals in as many mintues

First of two goals in as many minutes

The Ivory Coast went down early after Keisuke Honda’s cracker in the 13th minute.  I watched this one in the pub, and the entire room gasped when he scored.    But then Japan sat back and let the Elephants come at them.   The key moment, though, was the entrance of Didier Drogba.  The Ivory Coast captain sat while Wilfried Bony got the start.  Playing Bony made sense, considering the two players’ respective league seasons.  But Drogba’s introduction came at the expense of the holding midfielder, and now there were two strikers.  Bony scored two minutes after Drogba came on; Gervinho scored two minutes after that.   Ivory Coast 2-1 Japan

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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