Betting is on the host
LONDON — This column criticized Angel Di Maria last week for not being able to shoot the ball low. Against Switzerland this week, he was undoubtedly the best player on the field, but he still had not got it right as he continually shot over the bar or, when serving corners, over the heads of team mates or too far. Yet finally he shot one low at goal and it must have surprised the goalkeeper so much that he let it through for Argentina’s 1-0 win.
Argentina has had to fight hard to win their four matches so far to get to the quarterfinals, even in their not too difficult first round group, but it has been the same with other apparent favourites. Against Switzerland, Argentina seemed to have played their best match so far with more of the ball and getting more and more on top toward the end so it would have been an injustice if they had not won.
In the first half, the flank defenders did not connect enough with the attack, but coach Alejandro Sabella must have noticed this and in the second half they connected better. Yet the forwards had trouble getting into shooting positions and their shots were not good enough to beat a good goalkeeper. This had been apparent in previous matches also. Argentina placed a lot of their hopes on their three, or even four-men attack and worried about defensive problems. True, the defence still leaves too much room sometimes, yet note the goals record after 4 matches — 7 goals for, 3 against — and often criticized goalkeeper Romero made some vital and difficult saves in several games which could have saved Argentina from elimination by now.
What Argentina, with superior ball control, must not do is enter into their opponents’ rough play as was the case this week against the Swiss who, remember, almost equalized with 2 minutes to go when they hit a post.
The betting here for the quarterfinals is for Brazil to beat Colombia and Germany to beat France today and Belgium to beat Argentina and Netherlands to beat Costa Rica tomorrow. Favourites for the final are Brazil and Germany.
Of course, most money is on Brazil winning the trophy on home ground, but I confess that due to some difficult TV transmission times, I have only seen Brazil play once (against Chile) and it did not look very impressive. In fact, it looks as if the players should have good acting careers once they retire from soccer. They often fell to the ground writhing in apparent agony and waited for the referee to give them a free kick. Sometimes he bought it.
Here’s another reason why England suffers at international level as explained last week. In the eight squads of countries in the quarterfinals, there are most players (39) from 12 English Premier League clubs. Germany follows with 25 from 10 Bundesliga clubs and Italy with 21 from 11 clubs in their first division.
Goal-line technology — the only technology in use in soccer so far — has only been used once in the current World Cup up to now. More useful would have been more complete video technology covering the whole penalty area. This would have resolved the argument on whether there had been contact between a Mexican defender and a Dutch striker or whether the latter had dived into the penalty area to gain the penalty with which the Dutch eliminated Mexico in extra time.
Grabbing opponents in the penalty area, mainly during corners, is still something referees do not know about, or do not want to know about. In some matches, referees did hold up play to warn players, but no sanctions were taken and until they are the habit will continue unchanged. This is also something which a video referee (as in field hockey) would easily see or, alternatively, an extra referee on the goal lines.
Lionel Messi, four times FIFA’s player of the year in the last five years, will be the most popular player in Argentina if he brings home the World Cup. But if not, no! Why is that? Because the team relies too much on Messi and so do the country’s many soccer fans. They fail to realize that even the world’s best player can only play as well as the rest of the team which is why he was criticized for often playing better for Spain’s Barcelona than for Argentina. So far he has not come out of the shadow of Diego Maradona possibly because he never played in Argentina’s first division and has, as yet, not won the World Cup. But here’s an amusing story about Messi.
As a small boy, when still playing in Newell’s Old Boys junior teams, his favourite food was milanesa a la napolitana (schnitzel Italian style), but then one of his coaches found out that he also loved alfajores (sandwich cookies). The coach then promised him one for every goal he scored, but as Messi often used to score half-a-dozen goals in a game, his mother would not allow him to eat so much sweet things. So the plan was changed to two alfajores for every goal he scored with his head. No problem! Messi used to dribble through the defence and when near goal he would lift the ball with his foot up to his head and head it into the net.
Messi still likes Milanesa a la napolitana and alfajores although he got plenty in his youth. Today, he gets rather more than alfajores for the goals he scores, but I value his goal scoring records less. While on the one hand it may be harder to score goals now than in former times with 5-men forward lines, on the other hand players take part in far more games now than before.