Monday, September 7, 2009

Argentina and Portugal Hanging by a Thread

As discussed in my Saturday morning post, both Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal team and Lionel Messi's Argentina team confronted this weekend's World Cup qualifiers in precarious situations. Suffice to say, neither ended up in a better position after their respective games.

First off, Portugal. I watched bits and pieces of this game, and what was abundantly clear was this: Portugal created chances. Numerous, multiple, varied, and all shapes, colors, and sizes chances. But midfielders, no matter how good in front of goal, are not strikers. Look at the Dutch. Robben, Van der Vaart, and Sneijder can all score. But when a goal absolutely must be scored, they've looked (in recent years) to Van Nistlerooy, Van Persie, or Huntelaar. They are pure strikers. Not great striking midfielders. Simao, Deco, and Ronaldo all had good chances throughout the game, but until just-naturalized Portuguese Liedson equalized in the 87th minute, the Portuguese had put up a goose egg. The Portuguese press has not proven kind to either Queiroz or Ronaldo after the draw, as if this team needed any more pressure.

Now Portugal is truly on the outside looking in. Sitting fourth in their group with ten points, the Portuguese are behind Sweden (12 pts.), Hungary (13 pts.), and Denmark (17 pts.). They likely need all nine points available from the remaining three games, as well as some favorable results, and that's probably to enter the second place playoff. It looks very likely that the Portuguese and Cristiano Ronaldo will not be in South Africa next summer.

Argentina are in a slightly better position than Portugal, even after the manhandling received at the feet of the Brazilians Saturday night. The teams directly behind them lost, allowing them to remain in fourth place. Nevertheless, it was a sad spectacle in Rosario on Saturday night. Despite the albicelestes taking the initiative for the first fifteen to twenty minutes, after that it was all Brazil. The first goal was quite possibly one of the worst defended set piece headers I've ever seen in a top flight match. Luisao, the tallest player on the field, was completely unmarked for a ripping header. There wasn't an Argentine within four feet of him. Who to blame? How about Maradona, who instead of finding two center backs and molding them into what he wants, opted to use Velez Sarsfield's center back combination of Otamendi and Dominguez. Both are decent players, but neither was up to the task of playing against Brazil.

They play for Velez Sarsfield, and as such aren't used to the speed of players like Robinho (invisible), Kaka (magnificent), Fabiano (merciless), or Melo (effective). Fabiano's second goal really took the air out of Argentina, and not even Datolo's absolute cracker could make up for Brazil's absolute physical domination of Argentina. By the time Fabiano deftly chipped the third goal past Andujar (off a splendid pass from Kaka), the writing was on the wall. Argentina had improved in the second half, but certainly not enough to contend with Brazil.

Maradona tried to make up for his own incompetence by playing in Rosario, where the crowd was supposed to be ardent. He tried to make up for his lack of coaching with a known centerback tandem. He tried to make up for his poor team selection with "experience" (Heinze) and domestic club success (Veron/Estudiantes). None of it worked. Despite a very strong, at times impressive, performance from Messi, he couldn't make up for a team that clearly doesn't know what or how it's playing. As if a further indictment was needed, Maradona didn't even have his best players on the bench. Other than Aguero, Lisandro Lopez, Higuain and Riquelme were notably absent. It was almost comical to see Argentina cross the ball, as if one of the Messi-Tevez-Kun combination was about to grow four inches in a split second. Diego Milito gave up the second goal when instead of one touching a ball in front of goal he settled it, giving world class keeper Julio Cesar enough time to close on the shot. Brazil, on the other hand, knows what it's playing at, as Dunga has engrained it into their DNA. Stingy at the back, somwhat flowing up top, but always organized, Brazil may not be as flashy as years past, but they're just as effective.

And so, Maradona and Argentina sit in fourth place, facing a stingy Paraguayan defense in Paraguay in a decisive match. Tevez is injured and a new goalkeeper will likely start for the albicelestes. The doubts, it seems, are piling up. A few months from now, we may recall this past weekend as one where we saw two stunning goals (Bendtner and Datolo) go in, but saw two stunning squads head out.

Many will argue that two players or teams don't make a World Cup. And for the most part they're right. But the truth is, a World Cup without Messi or Ronaldo wouldn't be quite up to par. It's the Stones without Jagger. A Ferrari without a stickshift. Peanut butter with no jelly. The Cup will always be about the best team in the world. But anyone who tells you it's not about the best players too is just in denial. Either Argentina or Portugal, or both, need to be in this World Cup. Anything less would be a footballing tragedy.

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