Thursday, June 02, 2022

Reason to be excited about Argentina

Today's match at Wembley was called the "Finalisima", as it was the contest between the European champions of Italy and the South American champions from Argentina. It is a replacement for the defunct "Confederations Cup", so the match did carry honour and a title for both sides; Italy played to get some consolation from their botched World Cup qualification, while Argentina is clearly aiming at building a team that will be a serious contender for the World Cup title.

Argentina has been strong in the South American qualifiers, and their good form was underlined when they took the South American title, their first title since 1993. But with today's 3-0 victory Argentina should now be considered a serious contender for the title in Qatar. Lionel Scaloni has built an outstanding team that includes Lionel Messi, rather than building the team up around him. Rodrigo de Paul and Giovanni Lo Celso are outstanding and dominate the midfield, with an excellent understanding with Lionel Messi, who also combines well with Lautaro Martinez (who scored the first goal against the Italians after a sharp run and pass by Messi), while Angel di Maria is as dangerous as ever, scoring a great goal after a great pass by Martinez.

Argentina was totally dominant in the second half and the match could have ended with more goals with more luck for the Argentines, although Paolo Dybala made it 3-0 in the dying seconds. But Argentina were far superior to the European champions, who got no consolation from their botched qualification.

For an Argentina fan like myself it is difficult not to be really excited, more excited than for many years, about this Argentina side!

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Choripan and CL final

I had gotten all ready to enjoy yesterday's Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool with beer and choripán, but besides the beer, food and company, it was largely a disappointment.

Firstly, the delay in starting the match signaled not only gross incompetence, but total disregard of fans. While a lot of things are being said about what happened, it does seem incredible that these things can happen; this is hardly the first final they have organised...? At the same time one could see UEFA and FIFA dignitaries mingle amid celebrities in their luxurious seats, and a total disregards of the fans for whom they "manage" the game...

Secondly, the match was a disappointment. Liverpool created the match against a Real Madrid side that proved yet again that they only need one chance to win a match, and this time their 14th European Champions title. Vinicius Jr. scored the goal in a Real Madrid counterattack. Liverpool attacked and attacked, but besides a disciplined defense, they faced an incredible Thibaut Courtois, who seemed to save everything that came his way. In my opinion the Belgian goalkeeper is Real Madrid's greatest hero in getting the title.

Disappointment for all of us who were hoping for a Liverpool victory, but congratulations to Real Madrid fans.

Ready for Champions League final

Monday, May 23, 2022

Manchester City champions

 Although in the end everything finished as one might have expected (City and Liverpool victories), the end of the Premier League ended with a high level of excitement, with the surprise always looming.

To be champions City needed a win at home against Aston Villa. But with 20 minutes elft Aston Villa were ahead 0-2, and there was a clear fear in the stadium (although Liverpool were at the time not winning). But goals by Rodri and Gundogan (who came in to make two) within a magic period of five minutes, put things straight and the title in Manchester.

Liverpool knew what was happening in Manchester, and that a victory would give them the title. But Wolverhampton were a hard nut to crack, and the Wolves went ahead already in the third minute. Liverpool pressed on an towards the end of the first half Sadio Mane equalized. Knowing the result in Manchester the Reds pressed on, but the goal did not come until the 84th minute by way of Mohammed Salah. But by this time City were already up, and even though Salah scored a third in the last minute, they hardly celebrated it as they knew it was but for nothing but the goal-stats.

Liverpool ends as runner-ups, but they have an FA Cup title, and next week they will be vying for the Champions League title in a clash of Titans against Real Madrid.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Mighty Olympique Lyon

 This season's Champions League final was between the two best women's sides in the world: FC Barcelona had cruised to the final, and after last year's trashing of Chelsea, were probably slight favourites to continue their dominance in women's football. But facing them was Olympique Lyon, the most winning team in the women's CL, and one that had defeated FC Barcelona 4-1 in the 2019 final.

It was not to be a revenge for the Catalonians, who looked completely overwhelmed in the first half. It was only six minutes into the match when Amadine Henry scored a brilliant goal, and Ada Hegerberg and Catarina Macario scored as well to put the French ahead by the 33rd minute. And in particular the great Ada Hegerberg was playing a great match with vision and great technique.

Just before halftime Alexia Putellas scored for Barcelona, giving the many Barcelona fans in Turin hope for the second half. Surely FC Barcelona improved, but Lyon, whose defense is perhaps one of the best in the world, stood its ground, although they also made a lot of time-wasting which was surely frustrating to everyone (and largely unnecessary).

In the end Lyon won a well-deserved 8th title. And the final was a fantastic match with great atmosphere in Turin, continuing the growth of women's football!

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Eintracht Frankfurt Champions

The two teams playing the Europa League final today are not usually considered amongst Europe's best, but both sides were deservedly in the final after a strong campaign.

On the one hand Eintracht Frankfurt may not have had a strong Bundesliga season, but they have shined in the Europa league: they won their group undefeated and went on to defeat Betis (Copa del Rey champions), FC Barcelona and West Ham to make it to the final.

On the other hand Glasgow Rangers had only finished second in their group, but went on to eliminated Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga and RB Leipzig.

Frankfurt seemed to have the edge at the start of the match, but it was Rangers who went ahead in the second half on a goal by Joe Aribo after some clumsy mistakes in the German defense. But only 10 minutes later Frankfurt deservedly equalised on a goal by the Colombian striker Rafael Santos Borré. The match ended 1-1, and despite chances to both sides, the game went into a nerve-wrecking penalty contest. 

It is often said the stars miss the crucial penalties, and in this case it was Rangers' star Aaron Ramsey who missed the penalty in an extremely poor shot. Rafael Santos Borré scored the final winning penalty, and ended up being the star for Eintracht Frankfurt's first international title since they won the UEFA Cup in 1980!

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Copa del Rey final

Today I watched the Copa del Rey final between Betis and my old darlings of Valencia. Valencia have been a disappointment this season, where European football appears far away and a victory in this final could at least achieve that, as well as winning this prestigious title (which Valencia last had won in 2019).

The match itself was a typical cup final: a passionate but fair fight and with each team having their moments. Borja Iglesias brought Betis ahead, but Hugo Duro equalized with an elegant lob over the goalkeeper. 1-1 was the result of the match, and after extra time it had to go into penalty kicks (the first Copa del Rey Final to do so since 1998), and Yunus Musah's miss for Valencia decided the match as Betis scored on all their kicks.

Another disappointing Valencia day; I had hoped it would be different.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Remembering Freddy Rincon

Just about week ago I heard that the ex-striker from Colombia and Real Madrid had been in a car accident, and was in criticial condition. Just a few days later, having beers with a Venezuelan friend in Miami, he told me that Rincón had passed away at 55. 

A tall and quick striker, he had a long illustrious career that brought him, amongst others, to Palmeiras, Napoli and Real Madrid. But as I spoke with my friend I remembered Freddy Rincon for one very special moment: in 1990 I was a young teenager, sitting in an apartment in southern Spain, watching the World Cup match between West Germany and Colombia. It was the last group match, and the Germans were all but qualified while Colombia could not lose. I supported Colombia wholeheartedly as they attacked and attacked, but could not score. Instead, Germany went ahead, completely undeserved (but specially back then it was considered so “German”). In the last minute Freddy Rincón received the ball from “El Pibe” Valderrama and scored the equalizer that put Colombia through.

When that ball went in I jumped and screamed so much that neighbours and family worried that something had happened, but it was just one of those moments of absolute football joy that I remember having, and a treasured memory.

Thank you Freddy Rincón. RIP.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Losing or winning with dignity

 Manchester City, alongside Real Madrid, are the remaining teams in the Champions League no neutral fans will want to win.

Manchester City progressed today after 0-0 away to Atlético Madrid in match that was bound to be intense  as Atlético would seek to catch City’s 1-0 victory of the first match.

Atlético surely went for it, and although City defended well, they could have deserved a goal. But let us face it; it would have been an epic fight between two great teams had it not been ruined by poor sportsmanship and attitude. City wasted time and acted (two sins every single team, including Atlético, are guilty of, and which is a shame to football in general); but Atlético let it’s desperation at a goal become the lack of dignity of being eliminated.

Felipe showed the worst character of a footballer when he went on a revenge tackling of Foden (granted Foden acted, but it does not excuse anything) and acted and even touched the referee repeatedly when he gave him a highly deserved second yellow. 

How can that kind of behavior be accepted in football…? Are there really no standards? Even in “the heat of the moment”?

And worst of all: two great managers, geniuses at their job, Simeone and Guardiola: show some dignity! Even as a n example to your players (and to young football fans). They were the biggest the biggest disgrace of what could have been remembered as an epic encounter.

It is a bit depressing to see these kind of matches. 

Real Madrid will face Manchester City in one semifinal, while Liverpool will face Villarreal. The world will support the winner of the latter in the final.

Supporting Chelsea for a day

It was a fantastic match between Real Madrid and Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, and as I got into the match, and Chelsea appeared on the way of doing the impossible after losing the match 1-3 at home, I was totally behind Chelsea when they were up 0-3 (and huge respect for the fantastic charisma and qualities of Antonio Rudiger, and Timo Werner's great third goal).

But Real Madrid are the best club in history for a reason. 0-3 down Luka Modric pulled what was simply a world class pass to Rodrygo who could easily first-time the ball into goal, and extra time of a great match that was perfect for neutral fans.

Karim Benzema scored the 2-3 for the Spanish side in extra time, and put Real Madrid in the semifinals and eliminated the defending champions.

Real Madrid are not playing great; against PSG they were the lesser team for three halves. But they punish every mistake and have the edge when it counts, and nobody should underestimate them.

In what was a bigger surprise though, Villarreal eliminated mighty Bayern Munich after 1-1 in Munich. Villarreal eliminated Juventus, and are the surprise side in the semifinals. They do not play great football, but rely on a solid defense and counter-attack, but it would be great to see a small team go all the way anyway!

Saturday, April 09, 2022

World Cup draw

 I have been busy with work, traveling, and non-football things in my head and heart, but I have nevertheless followed last week's World Cup draw, which points at some very interesting matches in Qatar (that should never have had the World Cup):

Group A:

  • Qatar
  • Ecuador
  • Senegal
  • Netherlands

This group could plausibly be the most difficult one to predict. Qatar are playing their first World Cup, but as hosts they have been preparing for years and will not want to disappoint at home (even though I will not support them). Senegal are African champions and with a strong core of experienced Europe-based players. Netherlands are always strong, but can also disappoint, while Ecuador has sufficient experience and skills to upset any team. Watch this group, and support all but Qatar.

Group B:

  • England
  • USA
  • Iran
  • Scotland/Ukraine/Wales

This is an interesting group that could potentially be the Anglo-Saxon world against Iran. Iran are surely not to be underestimated, having qualified with style, and will recall their 1998 group win over USA. England are probably favourites to win the group, but USA will recall that they have never been defeated by England in a World Cup, and most famously recall the 1950 miracle in Belo Horizonte. If Ukraine qualify, the group will be watched even more closely for political reasons in an already highly politicized World Cup.

Group C:

  • Argentina
  • Mexico
  • Poland
  • Saudi Arabia

This is a good draw for Argentina, although of course they should never underestimate any of the teams in the group. But Argentina is playing excellently, have a hungry Lionel Messi likely in his last World Cup, so should hopefully (I fully support Argentina) pull through. Mexico has looked very poor in qualification, so Poland and Saudi Arabia have good chances in pulling through, where expectations to Lewandowski's Poland will probably be highest.

Group D

  • France
  • Denmark
  • Tunisia
  • Peru/Australia

This group is curiously a 75% repeat of the 2018 group C, which included France, Denmark, Peru and Australia. That group was won by France (who went on to become World Champions), with Denmark as runners-up, and an excellent Peru was unlucky to be eliminated. France are surely favourites, but note that the defending winners tend to do badly when they have to defend their title (Denmark notably defeating France in 2002), and that may be a hope for the other teams. Denmark are surely much better than they were in 2018, but Peru will be looking to avenge their rather unfair 2018 defeat. Tunisia are the most unwritten chapter of the group, but never to be underestimated.

Group E:

  • Spain
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • Costa Rica/New Zealand

This could potentially be the "Group of Death". Two former World Champions Spain and Germany, and both teams are also contenders for the title. At the same time Japan is always highly competitive, growing stronger in every World Cup (remember their spectacular match against Belgium in 2018). In the meantime neither Costa Rica or New Zealand are to be underestimated: remember in 2014 when Costa Rica won the "Group of Death ahead of England, Italy and Uruguay?

Group F:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Morocco
  • Croatia

This group has four exciting teams. Belgium is at the end of its most golden generation, and while they are still ranked number 1 in the world, one no longer has the feeling that they are able to go all the way. That said, they should be favourites in a group that sees the exciting Canadians, in the first World Cup since 1986, as well as Croatia, finalists and the world's darlings from 2018. Morocco is never to be underestimated, and may have hopes of fighting it out in the group.

Group G:

  • Brazil
  • Serbia
  • Switzerland
  • Cameroun

Brazil are surely huge favourites in the group, and contenders for the title that they have not taken since 2002. Of course they cannot underestimate any of the other teams, which have their strengths, but will have to fight it out between them. Switzerland may have a slight edge: a very strong team that eliminated France from the Euros, and won qualification ahead of European champions Italy, they have shown that they can take on everyone. Serbia has a strong base of experienced players but have never made it past the group stages since 1998. The same can be said of Cameroun; it is great to see the Lions in the World Cup again, but they have not made it past the group stages since 1990!

Group H:

  • Portugal
  • Ghana
  • Uruguay
  • South Corea

Portugal may be favourites in this group, even though nothing is written, of course, and Portugal can lose to all of these teams. That said, the match everyone thought about when they saw the draw was the legendary 2010 World Cup quarterfinal between Ghana and Uruguay, which saw Uruguay through after penalty kicks and Luis Suarez' infamous hand ball save. Ghana will look for revenge, but will have to keep their heads cool against an experienced Uruguay side, while Ghana at times has looked shaky (most recently in their disappointing Africa Cup of Nations). In the meantime South Corea is most certainly a team to reckon with, having qualified for every World Cup since 1986 they have the experience, although they have struggled to get past the group stages (That said, in 2018 they knocked out the defending champions of Germany).

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Qualified and not qualified

We are in the last stages of the World Cup qualifiers. 

In Europe two decisive playoff matches saw Portugal and Poland qualify by defeating North Macedonia and Sweden respectively; both were 2-0 home victories. The Macedonians were never really close to pulling another surprise against the Portuguese, while the Swedes play without fantasy or passion, and will not really be missed in Qatar. One team remains to qualify: Wales will face the winner of Scotland-Ukraine, which was postponed due to the war in Ukraine.

In South America there was little to play for for everyone but Peru and Colombia. A victory for Peru against Paraguay would put them in the play-off match, while Colombia had to defeat Venezuela and hope that Peru did not win. Both Peru and Colombia won, but it was not enough for Colombia, who will be missed in Qatar (I am personally very sad not to see them qualify), but they only have themselves to blame for missing another World Cup (the last they missed was 2010). Peru in the meantime is going into a play-off match in June against Australia or the United Arab Emirates. It seems it will be Australia, and against them I think Peru's chances will be 50-50 of making it to their second World Cup in a row.

In Africa there was enormous excitement as the second legs of the playoffs took place with some upsets. Firstly, Nigeria will miss their first World Cup since 2006 when they only managed a 1-1 at home to Ghana, who I am personally happy to see back in the World Cup after they missed Russia 2018! 

In a near-repeat of the Africa Cup of Nations final Senegal eliminated Egypt after penalty kicks, following a 1-0 victory that had equalized Egypt's 1-0 victory in Cairo. The Senegalese fully deserved the victory as they were the ones looking for it, rather than the defensive Egyptians. That said, the victory was marred by the fans, who abused laser-lights at the Egyptian players, making the match appear like a rave party.

The other big upset was Cameroun, who defeated Algeria 1-2 in Algeria after having lost 0-1 at home. The match had to go into extra time, and after Ahmed Touba scoring an equalizer for Algeria in the 118th minute, Cameroun seemed eliminated, but a goal by Karl Toko Ekambi in the last kick of the match (124th minute!) put Cameroun in Qatar in what was surely a devastating blow for the talented Algerians. At the same time it will be great to see Cameroun back in a World Cup after the missed out on Russia 2018. 

Tunisia and Morocco will make up the rest if African contingent to Qatar.

Only three teams remain to qualify, and it will (likely) be decided among these: Wales, Scotland, Ukraine, Peru, Australia, United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and Costa Rica.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Things decided in CONCACAF

 El Salvador had no chances to qualify following their recent tie with Jamaica, so in today's qualifier against Costa Rica they had only honour to play for as I went to cheer for them in a lovely sunny afternoon in San Salvador.

Costa Rica did not seem like a team that had a World cup spot to play for, but at the same time their experienced players gave the Salvadoran defense problems, and Costa Rica were leading 1-2 at halftime on goals by Anthony Contreras and Joel Campbell, that most of all exposed Salvadoran defensive mistakes. At the same time Costa Rica let El Salvador play the ball around, but without getting really dangerous, except when Cristian Gil Hurtado was excellently played into scoring position to pass Keylor Navas.

Second half was poor: Costa Rica defended and spent time, while El Salvador continued playing the ball around, but seldomly getting really dangerous.

The victory puts Costa Rica in the top four for CONCACAF, and they may still get third spot if El Salvador manages to take points from Mexico. 

In the meantime the long expected qualification of Canada was confirmed as they trashed Jamaica 4-0 at home (they lost their first match in qualification last week to Costa Rica), and it will be interesting to see if they can continue their regional success at the world stage, 36 years after their previous World Cup in 1986 (from which I have an anecdote for another blog-post).

In the meantime congratulations to the four teams from CONCACAF, and for El Salvador, they have to continue growing, and should have a chance at the next World Cup.

 
El Salvador-Costa Rica

Friday, March 25, 2022

What is VAR for anyway?

In South America VAR is useless. I remember a Copa Libertadores match when they spent 10 minutes reviewing a goal to find an extremely thin offside in a largely irrelevant situation. And today in the qualifier between Uruguay and Peru we saw what appeared to be a goal that had crossed the line not reviewed by VAR.

Aren't these the exact situations when VAR should be used!?!?

Mind you, I support Colombia (who finally scored seven games later, to win 3-0 against Bolivia), and Uruguay's 1-0 victory over Peru means that Colombia can still qualify with one match left (they have to defeat Venezuela and hope that Peru does not defeat Paraguay). However, if the referee and VAR had not conspired, Peru would have had the chance for direct World Cup qualification instead of a playoff, and that is simply unfair for Peru!

Disgraceful refereeing, but I could be wrong. Judge yourself:



Italian tragedy

Italy will be the most missed team in the World Cup, and that is a tragedy for football fans all over. The Italy that won the Euro this year were the best Italian side, but were defeated today in the World Cup playoffs against North Macedonia in a match where the Macedonians played their only chance: defending and hoping for the counterattack, which they got in the 92nd minute and gave Aleksandar Trajkovski the winning goal for the away side.

Despite dominating the Italians never seemed able to fight their way through, so the Macedonians have every reason to be proud about this huge upset. That said, they are certainly not qualified as they will now face Portugal, who defeated Turkey 3-1 to advance to the playoff final.

If the Macedonians advance to Qatar they will certainly deserve it!

Two World Cups in a row without Italy. Unheard of for a team that only had not qualified in 1958 (in 1930 they did not enter).


Sunday, March 20, 2022

Xavi's first Clásico

 When Xavi Hernandez became FC Barcelona manager in November the mighty Catalonian side were in a slump; on the way out of the Champions League and outside the top spots in the League, and expectations were that Xavi would have time to build up a new side. 

Today FC Barcelona roundly defeated the La Liga leaders Real Madrid 0-4 at the Santiago Bernabeu, and they played like the Barcelona-side of other times; the result was not larger only thanks to Courtois in the home goal.

FC Barcelona has always had a talented side, even after Messi left, but Xavi has given them confidence in their style; notably the often-criticized Ousmane Dembelé appears to have had a rebirth under Xavi. The team has also been supplemented by some extraordinary players: Ferran Torres (signed in December) was outstanding today, with one goal, and the newly signed Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang scored two goals.

FC Barcelona are still 9 points behind Real Madrid, who remains likely to win the league, but the result today certainly announces that FC Barcelona is back on the top under Xavi's leadership. They can still win the Europa-League, and after defeating Galatasaray this week, are probably favourites.

Real Madrid in the meantime played what is arguably one of their worst games of the season, and although they remain comfortably on first spot, this result hurts and exposed some weaknesses that were also seen when they played Paris St. Germain in the Champions League. Karim Benzema, who did not play today, was able to punish PSGs dreadful mistakes when everything seemed in their favour. But without Benzema today the counterattacks lacked something, and when going behind, they offered nothing in the way of a comeback. Ancelotti could offer nothing to counter Barcelona's game, and that was perhaps the biggest surprise of the match.

Be sure that we will see much more of Xavi's Barcelona.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Human Savagery

As if the world were not already falling apart, Mexican football had to add another example of humans as pure savages. While it fortunately appears there were no deaths (initial reports mentioned up to 10 deaths) in the Mexican league match between Querétaro and Atlas, the violence was disturbing. In this era of social media there are truly disturbing  images and videos of the raw and hateful violence between the fans.

I would imagine apologists would say that the perpetrators were provoked by the taunts of other fans. But as with other violence there is no other excuse than the very human nature that resides inside all of humanity.

Fucking depressing times to live in.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Suspend Russia

Football is not important, but football can take a stand, and that is what Poland's football players have taken in terms of deciding to boycott their World Cup qualifier against Russia in March. In case Russia is awarded the match, they will face Sweden or the Czech Republic, and Sweden have already also announced that they would not face Russia either.

Potentially, this could qualify Russia directly to the World Cup. And why is that? It is because FIFA has taken no stand as to what to do, and knowing FIFA's lack of courage in these situations, one has to assume that Russia is on its way to Qatar until a clear stand is taken.

Some would argue that football and politics should not be mixed and that the Russian players and fans should not be punished for what is happening. 

Russian players and fans are great; I can say it from experience, from the fantastic time and people I met in Russia in 2018 during the World Cup. But football and politics are intrinsically linked, because football is part of wider society, and cannot be separated from its problems. Russia's government must be isolated for its blatant and aggressive invasion of Ukraine, and although football is just a small thing, Russia must be suspended.



Saturday, February 19, 2022

Premier League Saturday action!

I have just spent an entire lazy Saturday morning watching some great Premier League action during which Manchester City's apparent hold in the first spot has been weakened, put excitement into the league.

First I watched Liverpool defeat Norwich 3-1. Despite going down 0-1, Liverpool showed the same cool professionalism by which they defeated Inter in the Champions League and came back on a spectacular goal by Sadio Mane, a goal by Mohammed Salah, as well as a cool finish by the new signing Luis Diaz to score his first goal for Liverpool (a shame that he cannot score for his native Colombia). 

Liverpool are on second spot and had six points up to Manchester City before the Manchester side were to face Tottenham at home, who are still fighting for a possible European spot. But everyone knew it would be a difficult match as Manchester City has been looking strong at home, but only after four minutes Tottenham's new Swedish signing Dejan Kulusevski made it 0-1 on a quick buildup by Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. As Manchester City pushed forward one was expecting an equalizer and it came by the way of Ilkay Gundogan after a mistake by Hugo Lloris in the Tottenham goal.

After this I at least was expecting Manchester City's constant pressure to bear fruit but instead in the second half Tottenham's counterattack proved deadly again as Son splendidly found Harry Kane who first-timed to make it 1-2. 

City continued attacking against a defensive but fighting Tottenham, who continued threatening on the counterattack (and in fact got another Harry Kane goal cancelled for a hair-thin offside). Two minutes into added time City got the equalizer on a well-taken penalty kick by Riyad Mahrez. Anyone would be forgiven to think that that was it, but Tottenham had another attack where a splendid cross by Dejan Kulusevski found Harry Kane's head and 2-3 for Tottenham.

Except for Manchester City, many are probably happy with the result: Harry Kane has not scored many goals this season, but his fourth and fifth season goals came in this crucial game, and he will be needed as Antonio Conte's side tries to get to Europe. Liverpool are surely also happy, as they are one match short with six points up to City, who may be feeling the pressure.

And in the end football fans like myself are happy that the Premier League continues to offer us so much excitement on a lazy Saturday morning in San Salvador!

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Senegal champions!

Senegal has won their first African Cup of Nations title ever in an intense final against Egypt. Egypt has reached the final on a strong defense; every play-off match went into extra time, and the side managed by Carlos Queiroz appeared to believe they could win the title in the same way.

And they almost did: in a prelude of what was to come Senegal got a penalty kick at the start of the match, but Sadio Mané's hard shot was saved by the Egyptian goalkeeper from Zamalek, Gabaski. 

Gabaski was simply splendid throughout the match, and caught everything that got through the otherwise strong and organised Egyptian defense, and as the match went into extra time and penalties with the score 0-0 one had to wonder whether Egypt's plan would work with a goalkeeper that seemed invincible on the day.

But Senegal deservedly prevailed in a nerve-wrecking penalty competition, despite one excellent save from Gabaski on one of the Senegalese shots. But with one shot on the post and a save from Edouard Mendy (perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment, although Gabaski clearly outshined him today, and very unusually, but deservedly, was made Man of the Match) gave Sadio Mané the opportunity to shoot the victorious penalty kick for Senegal, soon forgetting the penalty kick during the match.

It was the best thing for African football that Senegal won, as they have been the best team throughout the tournament, and despite feeling sorry for Gabaski, Egypt were simply a team defending their way through the tournament. It was also great to see an African manager, Aliou Cissé, managed his side to the title in a continent where too many second rate foreign coaches have managed teams.

It has been a good tournament, but now ten of the teams must look forward to the World Cup playoff matches in March. In fact, Senegal and Egypt will be facing one another for a spot in Qatar in a repeat of today's final, so one of the teams will be missing out of the World Cup. I hope it will be Egypt and would be delighted to see Senegal continue their celebrations!

The rebirth of FC Barcelona?

 This has not been an easy season for FC Barcelona. Ronald Koeman had to leave in November and was replaced by the former Barcelona legend Xavi to start a reconstruction. With a very talented side I think it was only a question of time before they would return to the top, and today they were playing the defending Spanish champions of Atletico Madrid in a match where both teams are fighting for the fourth spot in la Liga (they are behind Real Madrid, Sevilla and Betis).

An outstanding Barcelona side played as a team that belongs to the top again. Their recent new player on loan from Wolverhampton, Adama Traore, showed that he is there to make a difference, while the veterans Jordi Alba and Dani Alves played leading roles (both scoring). 4-2 was the final score of a splendid match between two splendid teams, and perhaps this match will be remembered as the rebirth of Barcelona in the post-Messi era.

Friday, February 04, 2022

El Salvador-Canada

Two days ago I was among the Salvadoran fans supporting their team in their last attempts to qualify for the World Cup as they were facing the team of the moment in CONCACAF, Canada. 

Despite the stadium not being full, the passionate fans created a great atmosphere, but in the first fifteen minutes the atmosphere did not help the home team as Canada dominated with a high pressure, and were only prevented from scoring due to a couple of great saves by the FAS goalkeeper Kevin Carabantes. But slowly the Salvadorans worked themselves into the match, and when it reached halftime the score was a deserved 0-0.

Second half started well for El Salvador who was putting more pressure on the Canadians, although they were missing obvious chances. During one excellent attack Bryan Tamacas was taken down in the Canadian area in what I considered a clear penalty (and after seeing it on TV I still consider it a clear penalty where the Canadian defender never touched the ball, but directly took down the man), but the referee, who had a really bad night, did not call the penalty. An awful decision, and in the next minutes Canada's Atiba Hutchinson scored one of the strangest and luckiest goals I have seen (and in fact in the stadium it was hard to see what happened exactly, and I have had to see it a few times on TV): following a cross a struggle between Eric Zavaleta and Hutchinson made the ball jump to the outside part of near post. Hutchinson fell on the goal-line and the ball fell on his back as he lay down, and jumped a strange curve from a very sharp angle into goal. There was some controversy as the linesman had waved the flag for a possible foul, but the referee correctly called the goal.

Respect for Canada, but that was incredibly lucky; it took some of the air out of the Salvadorans who appeared disorganized, while the Canadians now focused on defending and pulling the rhythm out of the match. That said, in the last minutes El Salvador created two big chances, the latter a spectacular shot that was just saved by Milan Borjan in the Canadian goal.

And as often happens when one is pushing forward in the last minutes, Canada struck back on a counterattack to make it 2-0 in the last seconds of the match (just as they had done when defeating the USA 2-0 on Sunday): a very sloppy throw-in by Enrico Dueñas was caught by the Lille striker Jonathan David who rushed towards goal and was ice-cold to score. 

Jonathan David confirms that he is a striker on fire!

The match thus ended in disappointment for El Salvador, who had played a good match, but just hadn't the luck or the referee to pull a tie, which would have been much more deserved. They can still mathematically qualify for the World Cup but it appears extremely unlikely: they need to win every match, while both Panama and Costa Rica must lose all their remaining matches. But both against the USA (1-0 loss), Honduras (0-2 win) and this match the team has shown good qualities, and they should look forward to keep improving.

In the meantime I can say that I saw the strongest team in CONCACAF. Despite the luck Canada are a strong and organised side with excellent players, and they come through three important victories in this round of qualifying (USA, Honduras and El Salvador), remain the only undefeated team, and they are almost sure to qualify to Qatar (they only need one victory in their last three matches).

Congratulations to Canada.

Salvadoran football fans

El Salvador-Canada World Cup Qualifier

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Colombia on the brink of elimination

 Colombia has had a weak World Cup qualification. After losing 6-1 to Ecuador, the new manager Reinaldo Rueda has struggled to make Colombia score goals, and before the match against Peru, Colombia had not scored a goal for five qualifiers in a row. So Colombia was under pressure at home against Peru, a team that has steadily improved and have chances of qualifying as well.

Under pressure to score Colombia started with an offensive side that counted the veterans Falcao, James and Juan Cuadrado, alongside Rafael Santos Borre and Luis Diaz. Indeed Colombia did all they had to do, except to score a goal: they attacked throughout the match, had possession and chances, but the ball simply refused to go in.

And we all know what happens in football. A defensive Peru scored on their only attempt on goal in the 85th minute when Edison Flores scored at the near post on a shot that David Ospina should have saved (and one may wonder if it was wise to let him play with an apparent injury; the only time he touched the ball in the match was when he had to pick it out of the goal).

Peru implausibly won, and came up on 4th position, ahead of Uruguay on fifth, while Colombia now lingers dangerously on 6th spot. Colombia have three matches left: Argentina (who qualified after their 1-2 away win to Chile), Bolivia and Venezuela, and have to start scoring goals if they are to retain hope of going to Qatar.

Friday, January 28, 2022

CONCACAF likelihood

Although all teams can still theoretically qualify in the CONCACAF Octagonal for the three direct spots for Qatar 2022, it appears more and more likely who the three teams will be, and who will be out after the matches played yesterday.

Canada remains on first spot and is a likely participant in Qatar after defeating Honduras 0-2 in Tegucigalpa. Honduras in the meantime, with three points only, takes the last spot among the eight teams. USA trails Canada by one point after defeating El Salvador 1-0 in Columbus, Ohio, in a match that proved more difficult than expected for the USA. El Salvador is on seventh spot with only 6 points, but they played well, and if they start scoring more goals they would be more competitive.

Mexico has suffered, and suffered yesterday against Jamaica as they were down 1-0 with only 6 minutes to go, but two quick goals gave them a victory, and they remain on third spot, only two points behind Canada. 

That is who I think will qualify in CONCACAF: Canada, USA and Mexico. The order may change a bit, specially when USA and Canada face one another this weekend.

The fourth spot (which gives a play-off) is Panamá's right now, with 14 points. But after Costa Rica defeated them 1-0 yesterday, Costa Rica creeps up to 12 points, and may still take the spot from the Panameños. Both teams have some difficult matches ahead for them, but be sure that both will fight hard for the play-off spot!

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Down with COVID

 As many players go down with COVID, so did I. Disappointingly, as I feel I have gone to extraordinary lengths to not approach people.

Many games in the English Premier League were cancelled due to players with COVID. Not so Manchester City-Chelsea although both teams had players down with COVID, for Chelsea notably defender Andreas Christensen (who may be on the way to Barcelona). But Manchester City were clearly a better side, despite their narrow 1-0 victory on a magnificent strike by Kevin de Bruyne. After the victory Manchester City are 13 points clear of Chelsea on first place, and look like a very safe bet for English champions.

A team that was not down with COVID, but might as well have been was Ghana. The Black Stars had been poor against Gabon, when they hardly showed any attacking prowess, but against the Comoros the Ghana side also showed poor defending, and despite an almost comeback when being down 0-2, they ended up losing 2-3 and a disgraceful exit for Ghana from the AFCON. But at the same time one must congratulate Comoros who took their first victory in their first Africa Cup of Nations (and may at the time of writing have the option of going through as a best third-placed team).

Someone who does not have COVID is Robert Lewandowski, who just won the FIFA Best Player of the Year award, congratulations to him, although in my view some other players were better. That said, I completely agree that Alexia Putellas and Edouard Mendy were the best female player and goalkeeper respectively.

I will be unable to watch football as I have been asked to completely isolate for 12 days. This means that my TV room is a no-go area, as I imprisoned in just two rooms. This is just another downer of this stupid disease.

 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Very disappointing Ghana

 The African Cup of Nations is always a great tournament and it is great to be able to watch some of the matches here from El Salvador. Ghana has always been my favorite African team, so I was excited to be able to watch the Black Stars against Gabon. Ghana should be considered one of the outsiders for the title, but lost their first match 0-1 to Morocco, and were thus forced to pull a result against Gabon; preferably a win before their last match against the Comoros (whom Gabon defeated 2-0).

Gabon started the best, but the experienced Ghanaians slowly worked their way into the match and I  one of their few attacks Andrew Ayew scored after getting well away from the defender into a good shooting position. But after this Ghana were a disappointment. In the most outdated and boring catenaccio style the Ghanaians stood back to defend their narrow lead against a Gabonese side that had to be commended for playing their chance. Gabon’s reward and Ghana’s well-deserved punishment came in the 88th minute when Jim Allevinah, Claremont striker, equalized for Gabon. 

It was only then that Ghana again attacked, and they even produced a good chance following a corner, but frankly they deserved to be where they were for having played on the 0-1, instead of attacking more. After the match a huge brawl ensued as the Ghanaian players, sore losers, seemed angry at everyone, and amid the row one player was given a red card. 

Ghana did sadly not win friends on this day, and in their final match against Comoros they must show that they can attack, while hoping that Morocco (who has almost qualified with two wins), defeats a hard-working Gabon.


Friday, January 07, 2022

The return of Eriksen

 I was happy to see that Christian Eriksen has announced his wish to return to football, and that he wants to go to Qatar with Denmark. Following his shocking collapse against Finland in June, things have been quiet around Eriksen, but this week he gave his first interview since the collapse. Besides thanking people for their support and telling about the situation, he announced that he wished to return to football. He will be playing with a pacemaker, which to many may seem impossible (I frankly thought that he would never be able to play), but in fact it appears that it is perfectly possible, and already other sport people do it, most notably the Dutch footballer Daley Blind. However, he will not be able to play in Inter, as the Italian League does not allow it.

So many things will be interesting about Eriksen's return. First of all, what club will take their chances with him: he is a top-quality player, but certainly some clubs will wonder whether he will return to play at the same level after such a shock and long break, besides the numerous health checks that they will probably ask for. Eriksen said he wished to return to the Danish national team, something that we all view with great sympathy. At the same time, if he is not playing at the top level by the time the team is selected the national team manager Kasper Hjulmand could well face a dilemma on whether to select him or not.

All these things said, it is only marvelous to hear that Eriksen is doing well and that he intends to return, and make sure that we all, myself included, will be cheering for Eriksen to have many more years of success on and off the football pitch!