Tag Archives: lionel messi

When a Win Feels Like a Draw, and a Draw Feels Like a Loss

The first game in this group was set to feature a set of superstars versus a young upstart squad.  The second game was supposed to have a continental champion overwhelm an also-ran; fail on this one as well.

What a disappointing performance from Argentina.  Expecting a fearsome foursome at the top, Alejandro Sabella decided to drop Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María, plus he fielded essentially six defenders.  So it’s no shocker that they only led at the half because of an early own-goal from Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Higuain's introduction was critical

Higuain’s introduction was critical

Sabella changed it up at the half and brought on Higuaín and Fernando Gago.  More option meant more men for the Bosnians to defend against and that allowed Lionel Messi to score.  Check out the goal here… Messi makes his run, passes it to Higuaín, who gives it right back to Messi, who hadn’t stopped running until he’s ready to take his shot, and then it’s in.  Bosnia would get one back late but that was it.  Argentina 2-1 Bosnia & Hezegovina

As for today’s match, let’s just say Nigeria blew their best chance at three points in this group.  Iran was content to batter down the hatches, but as the game went on, so did the Persians’ sense of adventure.   Stephen Keshi’s frustration showed early when he subbed on Shola Ameobi for Victor Moses in the 52nd minute… and then Peter Odemwingie for Ramon Azeez in the 69th.  Neither Ameobi nor Odemwingie exactly lit up the Premier League this season… and their work rate was no better today.  Nigeria dominated possession… but as we so often see, possession means nothing.  This  World Cup gets its first draw after five days of play.  Iran 0-0 Nigeria

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups E & F

Argentina v Mexico: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of SixteenThese two groups offer one sure thing — Argentina will go through on top — and then a bunch of questions.  Are Switzerland really sixth in the world? Have France overcome their attitude problems*?  Can Ecuador/Honduras/Iran/Nigeria push away the perception biases against their continents and actually challenge the European/South American powers?

Albanian blood, Swiss heats

Albanian blood, Swiss hearts

GROUP E
Switzerland’s football team is a reflection of the country itself: a multicultural nation whose style is cold and boring. That is, of course, unkind (the bit about being cold and boring) but you can’t argue that Switzerland is a very defensive team. That’s because the Swiss play to their strengths.  Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and LB Ricardo Rodríguez both had decent seasons with Wolfsburg, likewise RB Stephan Lichtsteiner with Juventus.   Napoli midfielders Gökhan Inler, Velon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili join Bundesliga wunderkinds Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.  This is a team marshaled by the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man whose club pedigree is as great as any manager in the tournament.   This team made it into the World Cup because they won a weak group.  That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers.  ROUND OF 16

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot in the French team

Deschamps seems to have cleared out the rot

Over the last six years, France‘s national side has been the very opposite of disciplined.  The side revolted against its manager, Raymond Domenech in South Africa, and the team failed to get out of the group stage.  Then in Euro 2012, a dressing room bust-up after losing 2-0 to Sweden in the final group game resulted in the firing of French legend Laurent Blanc.  That era appears to be over.  Didier Deschamps has put together a very competent team that is short on star power, but no less flashy.  The biggest name here is Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, after Franck Ribery was ruled out through injury.   From that infamous Sweden match, only four players remain: captain Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Benzema, and Olivier Giroud.   This year’s World Cup Squad only features five other players who even travelled to Ukraine.   The problems are gone, the pedigree remains.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

Ecuador has Valencia... and not much else

Ecuador has Valencia… and not much else

When Ecuador played England, many outlets wrote about how the South Americans gave England a good run, and how the heat makes a difference, and blah blah blah blah.  Here are the facts: 1) Ecuador won seven of their eight home qualifying matches (plus they drew Argentina) because they play in Quito, a city sitting at almost 2900m.  But away from home, they managed only an 0-3-5 record.  That’s basically saying they advanced because their opponents couldn’t breathe.  2) They perpetuate old stereotypes about South American teams that don’t score, but kick the hell out of their opponents.  3) They only have one player who regularly started in a major European league, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. This side snuck in because they had a better defensive record than Uruguay. That won’t help them here. THREE AND OUT

This is his face when it's just a friendly...

This is his face when it’s just a friendly…

More of the same from Honduras.  Only Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have any big league experience (and let’s please not muddy the waters by countering that MLS or the Scottish Premier is big league).  They will be strong on the ball (why physicality is so prized in the Western Hemisphere, I’ll never know) but their fate will be the same as fellow CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP F

Could this be King Leo's year?

Could this be King Leo’s year?

Argentina will perform well at this World Cup for many of the same reasons as the hosts: a well-rounded squad (though not as good as Brazil), a tournament based in South America, and a fairly easy progression into the knockout stage.  One thing that Alejandro Sabella’s men won’t have to contend with is pressure… not on the scale of Brazil’s pressure anyway.  But Argentina haven’t won a trophy in almost 30 years, and they must think they can pull an Uruguay, circa 1950 against their old foes.  La Albiceleste boasts the scariest offence in this tournament: Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero… and of course, Lionel Messi.  The three share an understanding… and just behind them is Ángel Di María looping in and out from the right wing.   A dream final between Brazil and Argentina is possible in a tournament promising several tasty end-scenarios.  SEMI-FINALISTS

"Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?"

“Uh, question? Why am I the only striker?”

The  build-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina‘s maiden World Cup appearance was fun to watch, as Safet Sušić built a team to attack.  The Bosnians tore through a relatively weak group, scoring at least three goals in six of their 10 qualifiers.  But this is not qualifying and now it appears the coach has had a rethink in World Cup warm-ups, adding an extra defensive midfielder and playing with a solitary striker.  In fact, he’s only bringing two out-and-out strikers: Eden Džeko and Stuttgart’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibišević.   Roma’s Miralem Pjanic will likely play just behind Džeko, but what about the rest of the side? This is a team that should be proud of its accomplishments, 20 years after a devastating war.   But the party is over.  THREE AND OUT

Hey it's... that guy... and... yeah...

Hey it’s… that guy… and… yeah…

It’s not a good sign when the biggest name on the team is the manager.  Former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, Carlos Queiroz has taken Iran to Brazil.   This is a side that is reportedly ill-prepared for the tournament (the government is a police state and the team doesn’t have a lot of resources).  The assumption is that Queiroz will make them very defensive… and no one wants to see that.  They won’t make it to the 60-minute mark, let alone the knockout round.  THREE AND OUT

Moses, Emenike, Mikel... get used to hearing that combination.

Moses, Emenike, Mikel: get used to hearing that combination.

Pride has been restored to the one of Africa’s biggest footballing nations.  Nigeria took the 2013 African Cup of Nations, winning it for the first time since 1994.  That was the same year the Super Eagles won the group at USA ’94, where they took Italy to extra-time in the Round of 16.  In France ’98, the same thing: winning the group by beating Raúl’s Spain and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria.  Since then, they have qualified for two more World Cups and finished dead last in their groups.  This tournament’s squad features a quality mix of young forwards: Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are both only 21, while Emmanuel Eminike is the veteran at the ripe old age of 27.   Stephen Keshi is bringing six strikers to Brazil.  What does that tell you? They came to play.  ROUND OF 16

 Brent P. Lanthier

*The team, not the nation;  changes, not miracles.

Up Next: Groups G & H

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Between Messi and immortality, a world of pain

As the undisputed king of football, Leo Messi has already secured his place in the game’s history. La Liga champion? Check. Copa del Rey winner? Check. Champions League winner? Check. European Footballer of the Year? Been there. FIFA World Player of the Year? Done that.

But all the accolades don’t seem to be enough for some pundits to consider Messi to be the greatest of all time. The critics argue Messi isn’t Messi without his Barcelona buddies by his side. Put on the Albicelestes colours and his magic disappears. To be the best, they argue, requires winning the one trophy that has been held above all others – the FIFA World Cup. Win that, Leo, and the debate will be over.

His quest begins again this Saturday, when South America kicks off qualifiers for Brazil 2014. And make no mistake: if Messi is to be a World Cup winner, getting there won’t be easy. The CONMEBOL qualification tournament is regarded as the toughest in the world, agrueling three-year cycle in which every South American team competes in home and home round robin tournament. The top four automatically qualify, with the fifth place team going to a playoff round against an Asian team. There are no easy matches in South American qualifying anymore, no Faroe Islands, Maldives, or St. Lucia’s to beat up on. Every match is war.

Don’t believe me? Check out the semi-finalists from this year’s Copa America: Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. No Argentina, nNo Brazil… and no gimmes. Every game will be tight, physical and challenging. At the end of a South American qualifier, the players look as if they were in a rugby match, not a football match.

For any player, the World Cup is the ultimate prize. To win it as an Argentine in Brazil would be even sweeter. For Lionel Messi to lift the trophy, he will have to go through football hell. That is the high price of immortality.

Hadi Zogheib

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World’s finest come from too few teams

First of all, congratulations to Lionel Messi for capturing his second consecutive World Player of the Year award. Though Xavi and Andres Iniesta were also worthy finalists, little Leo’s tally of 58 goals in 54 games for Barca last year was simply too outstanding for voters to ignore. Congratulations also must go out to every player named to FIFA’s world XI, all of whom were outstanding at their respective positions last year:

GK: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)

RB: Maicon (Inter)

CB: Lucio (Inter)

CB: Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

LB: Carles Puyol (Barcelona)

MF: Xavi (Barcelona)

MF: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)

MF: Wesley Sneijder (Inter)

FWD: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

FWD:  David Villa (Barcelona)

FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

A look at the players, however, shows a disturbing pattern. All of the XI belong to just three clubs! And the way Real Madrid and Barcelona are tearing up La Liga this season, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that next season’s World XI will be comprised entirely of players from just those two Spanish squads.

We all love to watch soccer for various reasons, but I think everyone can agree that one of the most compelling reasons is the game’s unpredictability. If European soccer continues to be dominated by so few teams, then the game will begin to bore us all. Yawn. Wake me when Real and Barca make the Champions League final, will ya???

Hadi Zogheib

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Filed under Champions League, La Liga, Serie A

10 Things I Learned This Weekend

What, me worry?

1) Firing your manager before your team faces the defending champions and cup holders = stupid.  Chelsea 7-0 Ipswich Town.

2) Firing your manager before your side faces the team that ripped the World Club Champions a new one = also not smart.   Tottenham 3-0 Charlton.

3) Howard Webb likes to insert himself in games.  Questionable calls against Liverpool this weekend.  Not outrageous… but questionable. 

4) Kenny Dalglish has his work cut out for him at Liverpool, especially since he will be without Steven Gerrard for the next three games.  Blackpool away, Merseyside derby at home, Wolves away… Liverpool have lost to all three teams this season.

5) Arsenal need a keeper.  No kidding.

6) Lionel Messi wins the inaugural FIFA Ballon D’Or as the best player in the world.  No kidding.

7) All of the FIFA Pro XI were chosen from Italian or Spanish clubs.  Stop me when you are sick of me stating the obvious…

Andros Townsend: The Future of the Right

8 ) ‘Arry still hasn’t finalized a deal to bring Becks.  I don’t understand why Spurs would sign him in the first place.

9) Becks and Posh are expecting a fourth child.  Show-offs…

10) El-Hadji Diouf is still a knob.  Discuss.

Brent Lanthier

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga

They call it El Clasico. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.  A literal Clash of the Titans.

It was Version 20-10, Round One, The Nou Camp. Actually, for us, the actual locale was Scallywag’s in midtown Toronto. But it was a memorable afternoon, in that Ian and I got to drink pints and watch a stunning rivalry, all the while texting and taunting Kev and Len — two other ATR contributors — because they had to work.  But on the pitch, only one team showed classic form… and the other failed to live up to its superstar credentials.

The media build-up to the game was epic.  Thirteen World champions were facing off, along with the two greatest players in the world at the moment: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.  Both acted according to type: Messi was a genius (although he failed to score) and Ronaldo once again threw all his toys out the pram.

Let’s just get down to it. Final score: 5-0.  After a build-up of rhetoric — mostly from the evil genius, Jose Mourinho — the game was nothing short of a blood bath and an embarrassment for Real Madrid. Barcelona tore their rivals apart and left them bent — and possibly broken. Real had gone into this game undefeated but now they sit second, humiliated by their rivals. Nothing but sour grapes for the arrogant side of the Spanish capital.

Everyone talks of how Messi is the best player in the world, but Xavi Hernandez is the best playmaker on the planet… and he proved it with a lucky, flukey goal that looked like he was giving a camp course.  The midfielder took a pass off his back heel, flick it up his over his shoulder, and onto the toe of his boot. Some fortunate physics may have been involved but  it was a massive, massive 1-nil.

Xavi: The “Real” Special One…

From then on, it was all Barcelona.  And regardless of  their club stripe, all Spaniards will take small consolation that Xavi — along with teammate David Villa — embarrassed the national goalkeeper, Iker Casillas.

But none of it was as embarrassing as Ray Hudson’s colour commentary on Gol TV.  Sounding like someone who forgot to take his Ritalin, the Geordie was over the top on every single play, making inappropriate and/or nonsensical references. Examples:

On Victor Valdes: “He looks like Mussolini looking over the balcony…” Nice… comparing the Barca keeper to the second-most infamous Fascist in history.

On David Silva: “He’s on fire… He looks like a Peregrine Falcon.” Um… I believe you are referring to the phoenix, which is born out of a fiery demise. Peregrine Falcons are known as fetchers for their master.  Perhaps you can get one to find you the definition of mixed metaphors…

On Lionel Messi: “He’s the world’s best player… on account of his powerful little legs.”

Scintillating analysis….

Back to La Liga.  Like it or not, Mourinho has finally lost, a defeat that he is  calling the worst of his career.  More importanly, the landscape has changed on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Catalans walking as softly as their gaffer, but carrying a big stick.  All the while, Madrid will look back at a performance where they began as Los Merengues… but ended as lemons.

Ole…

Brent P. Lanthier

Only it wasn’t supposed to end up like this. Madridistas around the world were so sure their team was finally up to the challenge of beating Barcelona. They had the players. They had the manager. They had the confidence of being unbeaten all year.

But, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. The end result was a thrashing of historic proportions, handing Jose Mourinho the worst defeat of his managerial career. The new boys of Real were supposed to make the difference. Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, and Ricardo Carvalho were playing scintillating football all season. The blistering Madrid counterattack was touted by pundits as the key to unlocking the slower Barcelona defence. But, the newbies seemed absolutely overawed by the occasion.

Instead it was Barcelona who were majestic. Over six hundred completed passes in the match. Six hundred!! That’s how you play, baby. Forget Messi vs. Ronaldo. Ronaldo has a long way to go to play up to the standards of Xavi and Iniesta, let alone Leo Messi. This was team football at it’s finest. The mesmerizing movement of the blaugrana showed the world that years of playing as a unit trumps any amount of bought talent. Sure Barcelona has some big name buys too (David Villa, Dani Alves, etc.), but it was the interplay between Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Messi that unlocked the toughest defence in La Liga.

It may only be one game and there’s still a long way to go in the season. But it’s clear for all to see that Real Madrid has a long way to go if it is to be considered Barcelona’s equal. For those of us who had the privilege of witnessing the game, it was one we will not soon forget.

Hadi Zogheib

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Batista stakes his claim in Argentina

When Sergio Batista was given the reins of Argentina’s national team on an interim basis, reactions in his home nation were mixed.  Some were still mourning the resignation of national icon Diego Maradona, while others were hoping for a different gaffer, one with some managerial experience in Europe or  Argentina’s domestic league.  After all, Batista was coming off a horrendous experience with the youth squad, having failed to guide Argentina to the World Youth Cup for the first time in recent memory.

Some, however, remember Batista as the brilliant tactical manager who ledArgentina to Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008.  In the process, he found a way to get the most out of his best players, namely Leo Messi, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano. So how would he perform at the senior level?  The answer, thus far, is magnificently.

Unlike Maradona, Batista has stacked his midfield and defence with more  possession based players, and the results have been astonishing.  Nicolas Ottamendi, Di Maria, and Maxi Rodriguez were replaced by Ever Banega, Esteban Cambiasso, and Javier Zanetti and Argentina has looked unstoppable since.  In fact, following Tuesday’s 4-1 demolition of world champions Spain, supporters of the Albicelestes are no doubt be wondering what could have been had Batista been in charge in South Africa instead of Maradona.

Batista still has a number of upcoming friendlies to justify his appointment as permanent manager, including a match against hated-rivals Brazil. But if the big win over Spain is any indication,  he looks certain to be around for some time.

Hadi Zogheib

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