Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Brazil's uninspiring draw leaves Big Phil plenty to think

Goalless draws have been an uncommon result in the World Cup so far and one would not have expected the host Brazil would fail to score. Although one single point ensures they top group A entering the last round of group match, their lacklustre performance leaves the nation wonder whether their dream of lifting the trophy in home soil is still realistic. 

Mexico retained the team which played under pouring rain five days ago. It was only a narrow victory but was more convincing than what the host showed against Croatia in the opening day. With both teams knowing each other quite well, a more cautious approach was adopted. Mexico looked in particular nervous at the start, possibly wary of the threat of Brazil, especially when they lost by two goals in Confederations Cup almost the same day last year.

Nevertheless, Brazil allowed them to settle, and when they have, Rafael Marquez, four-time captain of Mexico in World Cup, rightly coordinated the defence with offside traps, which at time looked risky, but proved to be effective against the immobile Fred.

The secret to break offside traps is penetrating runs from midfield.  Paulinho was being tasked with this role but had largely been disappointing, similar to his debut season in England. Ramires continued his failure to replicate the electric performance in Chelsea and was substituted promptly after half time, with little surprise.

Ochoa was simply faultless
The absence of Hulk meant that both fullbacks were the sole source of width in Brazil's attack, but Dani Alves was far from productive and from time to time became a liability in offence. Brazil's best chance in the first half came from a header from an unlikely source --- Neymar, but Guillermo Ochoa picked up from where he left off to deny Neymar and more crucially, his determination prevented Brazil from taking advantage of a poorly organised offside trap that saw four Brazilians surrounding the goalkeeper following a freekick.  

On the other side, Mexico also could not get their key threats going. Giovani Dos Santos was often outmuscled, so did Oribe Peralta. Although David Luiz still occasionally went eccentric, Thiago Silva was as solid as ever that Mexico could only threaten with long shots. Hector Herrera's attempts had got Julio Cesar sweating and with time went on, confidence within the Mexicans were growing fast.

The introduction of Jo all of a sudden brought Brazil some energy. Neymar thought he broke the deadlock finally, but Ochoa was one again stood between his left foot volley and the back of the net. Late in the game, Ochoa made sure he bagged the man of the match award with a brilliant save to deny the unmarked Thiago Silva.

It is true that you don't necessarily tune your team to be on full gear from the first day of the four weeks tournament, but Brazil looked worryingly relaxed, uninterested and unmotivated. Marcelo would have further disgusted the supporters for not standing strong against a soft challenge and let go of a wonderful opportunity late in the match. Even when Scolari were desperate for more intensity to be displayed, they never delivered.

Will he still get the call?
It is unlikely their journey stops at group stage. To advance further, Scolari might have to re-evaluate his best eleven. With no better option, Fred is still the no.9 but Jo might deserve more playing time. Paulinho has so far been poor, prompting the questions why Fernandinho is still yet to log his first minute of action.
Brazil also needs Oscar to be at his best. When Oscar appears as a potent threat, he forces opponents to divert focus on Neymar and thus brings more life to the attack. Oscar's form has dropped tremendously since February. If Scolari is yet to determine who is his deputy, Willian deserves to be auditioned in the final group game against Cameroon.

Brazil has started the tournament in a way that they could only get better. Whether they can rediscover the form last summer is yet to be seen. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Van Gaal led Oranje's revenge in style

It's only the second day of the World Cup and surprises are in no short supply. The Japanese referee's decision was surprising; the weather deteriorated surprisingly quickly, and the encore of last final turned out to be a surprisingly one-sided game.
The flying Van Persie
The shock does not only originate from the final score, but also how Louis Van Gaal constructed the victory which, on paper, is near to impossible. None of the starting five defenders were featured in the 2010 World Cup and only Ron Vlaar has major tournament experience. Their three goalkeepers have a combined 27 caps, one-sixth of the caps Iker Casillas solely owns.

Who would have predicted that Netherlands would manage to keep Spain in check, while the experienced Casillas endured an embarrassing night?

Vincent Del Bosque wouldn't be complacent against Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, but might have thought his side would have no trouble to score against Netherlands. In truth, flaws were exposed among Oranje's three centrebacks, with a true no.9 Diego Costa's presence open up space for David Silva and Andres Iniesta to threaten the final third.

Silva's miss proved to be costly
If Van Persie and Robben are credited for driving the win with some world class quality goals, young goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen also played a key part in the comeback victory. His save had prevented Silva from opening up a two-goal load in first half and kept Netherlands' hope alive.

But how did Netherlands fire five goals past Iker Casillas? On one hand, La Roja had themselves to blame, fielding Casillas and Pique who both finished the season on a low with dipping form. It might be a bit risky to play Napoli duo Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina, but the risk all starts from Del Bosque's unwillingness to experiment prior to the tournament.

On the other hand, Van Gaal had a gameplan and ordered his players to execute it perfectly. Rather than attempting to better the midfield of Spain, diagonal crosses were the main weapon Van Gaal used to unlock the Spain defence. Although looking fruitless and unconvincing at the start, Netherlands began to find the way and was only stopped by some well-timed offside trap. The intelligence of Van Persie and Robben in timing their runs was well-rewarded by accurate passes by Daley Blind, the highly-rated full back which is monitored by Manchester United. There were still a lot to do to put the ball behind Casillas, but the tactics to expose Spain's high line and the enormous room between Pique and Sergio Ramos was the key to success.
catch me if you can!
Daley Blind's exceptional performance meant Cesar Azpilicueta had to focus on defence, which in turn limited the width of Spain's attack, which is highly reliant on flying fullbacks. Fitness of Xavi and Xabi Alonso under the extreme weather was also questionable, as Netherlands did not have to work ultra hard to contain the playmakers, and Spain only got more sluggish as time went on.

The idea of slotting Pedro in was correct, but a controversial goal, also some poor marking, and Casillas' mistake killed off Spain's hope. Del Bosque's refusal to limit the damage granted Robben the room to humiliate Sergio Ramos and Casillas further.

How far can they go?
 Compared to recent tournaments when Netherlands overloaded themselves with attackers, Van Gaal builds the team around Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie, and when the trio understands and enjoys their role, they deliver. Van Gaal's squad selection, judged by players' form and functionality over fame, is well justified so far. Their shortage of experience might be a disadvantage in later stage of tournament, if they advance that far, but this Oranje is so refreshing and promising, which not only reminds the Dutch the Golden Age of Ajax football, also led by Van Gaal, but also sadden the supporters to see the legendary manager leave the post in a month time.    

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A little less flair, a higher chance?

Brazilian football is equivalent to extraordinary skills, tricks, attacks and no boring football. It is appealing but does not always translate to trophies, especially when facing the less impromptu and more tactical teams in Europe. Being the host of the World Cup again after 64 years, Brazil is keen to better the runner-up they achieved last time on home soil.

They have the perfect man to lead them. Luiz Felipe Scolari has had a successful career at international level and brought Brazil the last Jules Rimet Trophy in 2002. He is the man who knows how to bring the best out of Brazil.
Trophy, no problem?
They know the weather; they won the Confederation Cup last year by crushing Spain. Nonetheless, Brazil is still not being regarded as the absolute favourite of the tournament. One of the many reasons is the lack of formidable strikers. Pele, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho were once the source of goals that Brazil can confidently rely on their attacking football to conquer the world. This time, it is Fred and Jo to lead the front – both plying their trade in Brazil after unsuccessful periods in Europe –, supported by the talented Neymar who has yet to prove himself on the big stage following a disappointing year at Barcelona. Despite his terrific national goalscoring record, this is not a frightening frontline at all.

Can the midfield compensate for the shortage in creativity? Not if Hulk is in the starting lineup again. He wins the heart of Scolari but is not as brilliant as suggested by his price tag. His left foot is powerful but overall his style is just too predictable (remember Adriano, anyone?). The best source of flair should come from Oscar, although his drop of form late in the season would worry Big Phil. In truth, Oscar has been restless since Olympics 2012 representing both his country and club. This might give Oscar's clubmate Willian a shot at the no. 10 position, who, under Mourinho's nurture, has matured significantly in the last 12 months.  
The Chelsea duo will fight for a starting berth
The front does not look reassuring, so is the back. They have got one of the best defenders in the world, Thiago Silva. Unfortunately, defence is all about teamwork, which could be non-existent when your second best centreback is David Luiz. He makes himself one of the most expensive defender in the world, but he has only ever been a liability at Stamford Bridge. The momentarily brilliance of his freekicks and long shots could not make up for his carelessness and unawareness at defence. With Brazil have always been in favour of playing advancing full backs, featuring La Liga rivals Marcelo and Dani Alves this time, but with his roaming forward with freedom, David Luiz does not give you the confidence of balancing attack and defence at the centreback position as Lucio once displayed.

What Scolari has got, though, is a solid mix of central midfields, which is comparable to the Gilberto Silva - Kleberson partnership in 2002. Having enjoyed a triumphant season with Manchester City, Fernandinho emerges to be Scolari's prime option in midfield, despite not being selected in the Confederation Cup last year. Another serious contender is Ramires, who was also not in the squad last year having fallen out with Scolari for dropping out of a friendly match against Russia earlier in the year. The two Premier League players are both all-rounded and box-to-box which are essential to Brazil, who often plays with an open and attacking game with flying fullbacks.  
Limiting David Luiz's craziness could be the key to success
The starting pair last June, Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho, enriches Big Phil's options in the position, if he is in need of an anchorman or a more advancing midfielder. Having had to settle in their new clubs, they have both gone through an up-and-down season, but still have a part to play in the national team. 29 years old Hernanes is also Scolari's man-to-turn-to if tempo-controlling and possession-retaining is the key priority during the match.

Decided against calling up Kaka, Ronaldinho, Lucas Moura or Robinho, there is less flair and individualism in the team, but shows Scolari's belief that unity and teamwork are the ingredients for World Cup success. Turning this decent team to the best in global this summer will not be straightforward, but could be the most important and notable achievement of Big Phil's managerial career.

Monday, May 26, 2014

A dramatic All-Madrid Champions League final

So close to a grand finale to the fairy-tale season, Diego Simeone's side buckled in the dying minute and witnessed the Los Bloncos never looked back after Sergio Ramos' equaliser. The final scoreline may not truly reflect the match. Real Madrid was unconvincing for most of the regular time, but they kept their belief and persistence to finally overcome Atletico Madrid. It is the result that matters. Carlo Ancelotti would have little complaints on how his third personal Champions League trophy is achieved. 

Simeone had made most of his decisions right. He managed to silent the "BBC" trio and did not let his team expose much to Real Madrid's speedy counter attack. Thibaut Courtois barely needed to glove in the first half. On the other end, a routine cross following clearance from corner caught Iker Casillas' hesitation. A rare mistake from the experienced goalkeeper gifted Diego Godin second goal in last two matches, potentially both title winner.
So close to celebration
There is just too much quality in Real Madrid that to beat them, you have to be almost perfect for more than 90 minutes. Their two best players had vanished among the spiritual defence. When Gareth Bale uncharacteristically squandered two golden chances, somehow they still managed to pull something out of the bag. Ramos' inch-perfect header and Angel Di Maria's superb run in the extra time were pure quality and determination which also defines how extraordinary Real Madrid is. Bale's header is no easy either, with his body balance adjusted so well to meet Courtois' save.

Being no rookie to big occasion both as a player and manager, also managed to get four points out of six in the two Madrid derbies this season, no wonder Sergio Ramos declared themselves as the underdog against Simeone's side. Nevertheless, the Argentine would be backfired with his decision to risk playing Diego Costa, a sentimental but ultimately costly decision.
A debatable decision to play Costa for merely 10 minutes
While Ancelotti also played an unfit Sami Khedira in the starting lineup, Khedira is more of a role player and Real Madrid could afford to have him being unconstructive to the offense. With no surprise, Khedira was Ancelotti's primary target to go to when an more attacking approach was required.

On contrast, Diego Costa is the scoring machine that Atletico Madrid desperately needs him to be fully fit. Knowing that his fitness condition is marginal, Simeone allowed Diego Costa ten minutes on the field with no contribution with the price of one substitution. However insignificant as it sounds, Felipe Luis' fatigue, Juanfran's cramp and Godin's inability to race back in extra time how demanding physically to defend Real Madrid in regular time. Extra pair of fresh legs would do no harm to Atletico. There was no shocking face when Costa was taken off. This seemed to be an understood decision among the squad, but certainly debatable if this was a wise one.
Ancelotti celebrating his third Champions League trophy
Many key players in this epic final will be at their own crossroads to their future. Diego Costa looks destined to move to London, while Courtois may also return to Chelsea. Raul Garcia, Koke and Gabi will all be hot targets in the market. Iker Casillas could be on the way out as his importance at Madrid is fading. The future of Benzema and Morata are also questionable as Ancelotti is keen to pursuit a top-class striker. Over a summer, it could be a completely new look at Madrid, but this night will certainly go into the history book as one of the most dramatic and memorable final ever.