Saturday, March 20, 2021

The quarterfinals

 The draws for the Champions League quarterfinals are ready, and some really exciting matches ahead:

  • Bayern Munich-Paris St. Germain: Surely the most awaited match, a repeat of last year's final, and this year it can almost be considered an early final, as both remain top contenders for the title. This will be one of the top clashes of the year.
  • Real Madrid-Liverpool: Two of the greatest sides in football history in what promises to be another epic clash. Both sides have struggled this season, and the Champions League appears for both clubs one of the last attempts to get a title this season
  • Manchester City-Borussia Dortmund: Manchester City is doing very well this season, and are probably favourites to reach the semi-finals. However, Borussia Dortmund have been very strong in this CL, and have the most-talked about striker in the world right now in Erling Haaland, who appears to score in every match!
  • FC Porto-Chelsea: Both are former CL winners and probably two of the most underrated sides in the competition, but one must remember that they eliminated giants of Juventus and Atletico Madrid respectively, and one of them will make it to the semifinals, where they will make things difficult for whoever they face.

It is worth noting the absence of FC Barcelona, who for the first time since 2007 are not among the eight best teams in Europe. Also many news outlets have noted the fact that neither Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the quarterfinals, for the first time since 2005, but surely not the last time. Both great players still have a few good years in them, but this season's quarterfinals has reminded us all that we will not have the possibility of enjoying the two contemporary greats forever.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Cancelled football in South America

The South American World Cup qualifiers that were to take place in two weeks have been cancelled due to COVID. Or at least indirectly: the problem is that quarantine requirements in Europe has made it unlikely that most Europe-based players will be allowed by their employers to travel for the World Cup qualifiers. And obviously, nobody wants to play without their best players, so not only for the health risks, cancellation seems a very sensible decision.

In the meantime, the Copa America has still not been cancelled. It is still to take place in June-July, co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia. The two invited teams, Australia and Qatar, have both announced that they will not participate, leaving the 10 South American sides in the competition. There seems to be an exaggerated optimism that by June the problems of the European-based players will be solved, but besides this, a carelessness about the potential for the virus spreading in a continent that is already hugely affected by the pandemic. In this sense, cancellation seems like the most sensible option: not just postponement, like in 2020, but a full cancellation, and wait for better times.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Paris' feeble revenge

In 2017 I watched FC Barcelona pull off an extraordinary comeback in the Champions League against Paris St. Germain. As FC Barcelona was facing PSG again, in the last-16, some were hoping for a repeat after FC Barcelona's humiliating 1-4 home defeat in the first leg. Although it was not to be (the match ended 1-1), I have to say that this is one of the few times I have admired a Barcelona side's spirit, as they kept trying to attack, and were largely unlucky not to get at least a narrow victory. There is a lot of criticism against Barcelona, rightfully, but what they showed today should give Barca fans some hope, as the youngsters are taking up the responsibility. 

And of course: they still have Messi. He seems a bit slower, and also seems less committed than we have seen him before. But he is certainly still an amazing player, and scored a splendid goal (but also missed a penalty kick).

In the meantime one may be able to excuse PSG: at home, but without fans, and with the advantage of having to defend a 4-1 lead, they were very poor; they defended well (with Keylor Navas and Marquinhos playing splendidly), but there was otherwise not much to show, and surely, if they are going for the title, will have to play much better than they did today. At least they got a feeble revenge for what happened four years ago!

A future record?

The young Norwegian striker of Borussia Dortmund, Erling Haaland is one of the players to watch, not just this season, but as he is only 20 years old, also for the future. He has been a veritable goal-machine, and with Borussia Dortmund's elimination of Sevilla in the last-16 of the CL, he scored his 20th CL goal in only 14 matches, becoming the fastest and younger player ever to reach 20 CL goals.

This season he has minimum two more games left to score more goals, but he is likely to have many years ahead to reach the levels of the CL record-holders of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Raul and Karim Benzema (the top five goalscorers of the Champions League). Surely a lot of bigger teams must be looking at Haaland, but football fans will also be looking for years to come!

Dramatic justice in Turin

I just watched a fantastic last-16 drama in the Champions League between Juventus and FC Porto. The Portuguese side had won the 1st leg 2-1, so a 1-0 home victory for Juventus would be enough. But just as in the previous match FC Porto seemed to be more motivated and dynamic, and after 19 minutes went ahead 1-0 on a well-deserved penalty kick by Sergio Oliveira. FC Porto were the better side in the first half as Juventus retained a lot of possession, and the few chances they created were saved by a splendid Agustin Marchesin in the Porto goal.

Five minutes into the second half Federico Chiesa made it 1-1. It was in fact a beautiful attack where a sudden pass into the area was brilliantly taken down by Ronaldo, and served to Chiesa who splendidly kicked into the far corner, and one felt that there was now a match. But the referee Bjorn Kuipers thought differently: he gave Porto's Mehdi Taremi a red card at the most intense moment of the match. One observation here: the yellow card was correct, according to the rules, as Mehdi kicked the ball away after a referee call; however, it meant Taremi's second card, and in these intense matches I think that the referee has to give a call according to the intensity. It certainly felt, that at this moment, the referee was handing a gift to Juventus, and at least I went wholeheartedly into supporting Porto.

It was still half an hour from the end of the match when Federico Chiesa, with his second goal, made it 2-1. At this point it seemed that one man ahead, Juventus would bring victory home, but it was then that FC Porto became a heroic side fighting against the odds. They defended with everything until full time, and tired entered into extra time. Both teams were extremely tired, and extra time was more dramatic than well played, with many mistakes, fouls and chances, but also with drama and nerves. Only five minutes to the end Juventus conceded a clumsy free kick outside the area, and Sergio Oliveira shot hard, but with what appeared little plan. The defensive wall jumped and the ball sneaked into goal (and now one understands teams such as Atletico Madrid, who put a player lying down behind a defensive wall in such situations). Understandably, FC Porto celebrated like crazy, but maybe too early, as only one minute later Adrien Rabiot scored for Juventus, and the last few minutes were a nervous defending by the Portuguese side, but nevertheless enough to put them among the eight best teams in Europe.

A pity for Andrea Pirlo's Juventus, who may end the season without a title, but great for an FC Porto side who may be the side to watch in this season's Champions League.