The Battle of Seconds

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (November 12th 2014)

Victory

Fazio

Tottenham Hotspurʼs Federico Fazio was happy with the win if his Argentina team beaten a second string Croatia 2-1 at the Boleyn Ground – home of West Ham United. Croatiaʼs second-string – the regulars remained at home to prepare for this weekendʼs vital Euro2016 qualifier against Italy – took a shock and against the run of play 11th minute lead, courtesy of Anas Sharbiniʼs first goal for his country in only his second match. Interʼs Mateo Kovačić provided the assist.

Despite dominating the first half Argentina, captained by Lionel Messi, back to his mesmerising best, trailed to Sharbiniʼs strike. The move began on the right flank before working it inside to Kovačić, who beat Christian Ansaldi and found Sharbini on the left of the area. The mixed-race – Croatian and Palestinian – midfielder finished with aplomb across Sampdoriaʼs Sergio Romero from 10 yard out.

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Astonishing

Argentina created chance after chance. Sevillaʼs Ever Banega wasted a glorious opportunity created by the first of many mazy runs by Messi from the right wing into the left of the area. Banega missed after 5 minutes. The normally clinical Sergio Agüero had one shot well saved by Croatian goalkeeper for the night Lovre Kalinić, another volleyed straight at the keeper, failed to collect a Messi pass and prodded two shots wide from Messi passes after mazy runs all in the space of ten minutes without scoring.

Premier League defences had best savour the moment. Rarely has the in-form Kun proved so profligate. Messi was also denied. Another mazy run treading the same path as before, a one-two with Ansaldi, resulted in Messi shooting into the side-netting. He also hit the post in the second half with the keeper well beaten. However both Messi and Agüero would not be denied, albeit in controversial fashion for Kun.

Reward

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When Agüero got his goal only the eagle-eyed noticed it – well them and the replays. 3 minutes into the second half Ansaldiʼs fierce shot from just outside the area was deflected in past Kalinić by Agüero taking protective action. It went in off his arm with Kalinić stranded.

12 minutes into the second half Messi found Agüero on the left of the six yard box. Kalinić brought him down, conceding a penalty. Messi converted it. 

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Returning Idols

The Hammersʼ fans got to see the great Lionel Messi in the flesh, but by far the biggest cheers of the night greeted the return of 2007 West Ham hero Carlos Tévez. Will you please welcome Argentina and West Ham legend, Carlos Tévez”, as , the announcer said after 62 minutes as Agüero was replaced. Tévez received a standing and loud ovation despite the sparse crowd.

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But West Hamʼs former idol could not provide the fairytale goal despite a glorious chance made for him by Manchester Unitedʼs Ángel di María, which Tévez pulled just wide of the post. He also spurned another chance by heading Pablo Zabaletaʼs cross straight at Kalinić.

Midway through the second half the other Argentinian returning Hammer from the 2007 season Javier Mascherano, unleashed a pile-driver, which Kalinić saved. Five minutes earlier Barçelonaʼs defensive midfield enforcer inflicted a crunching shin high tackle on Tin Jedvaj. Not only did Mascherano not receive a card – friendly or not – but referee Lee Probert didnʼt even award the Roma defender currently on loan to Bayer Levekusen a free kick.

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Argentina got the win and Croatiaʼs second team showed spirit that pleased the President of Croatian Football Federation Davor Šuker. “[They] need to give back to Croatian national team and I think we have great performance”, Šuker said, “and we have great future in the Croatian football federation”. Croatia face Italy at the weekend and Argentina will face Cristiano Ronaldoʼs Portugal at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

The New Dynasty

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 13th 2014)

The Tactician

With the spectre of penalties looming Bayern München’s Mario Götze’s spectacular goal ended Germany’s 18 year wait for a trophy at the Estádio Maracanã tonight. Joachim Löw’s strategy and patience had finally been rewarded with the ultimate triumph. With eight minutes of the second period of extra time remaining a quick throw-in down the left flank released Chelsea’s André Schürrle.

His cross was chested down and volleyed across the Monaco’s second choice keeper Sergio Romero for the goal that won the World Cup. It was a strike worthy of ending almost two decades of pain and a decade for the clinical tactician Löw. There was a typically German meticulous attention to detail to Löw’s planning that required unusual patience to bear fruit and deliver the foundations for continued success – domination even.

The Next Generation

Eight years ago Löw took over the Mannschaft from Jürgen Klinsmann, who had blooded the youngsters who now provided the experience to blend with the undoubted promise of the next generation, which hammered England’s youth five years ago. Captained by 30-year-old Philipp Lahm the Mannschaft has integrated exceptionally talented youngsters – the Under-20 European Cup winning team of 2009 – and delivered their first senior title.

Germany’s team of World beaters is young and achieved the top prize in half the time it took Spain’s tiki-taki generation to translate youthful promise into senior prowess. Five years ago Germany’s Under-20 team destroyed England 4-0 in Malmo to claim an important trophy. Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira played a huge part in German success as youngsters and now in the senior team too.

But for Khedira’s injury during warming up more than half of that Cup-winning team would have started the World Cup Final. Löw’s plans for German domination for years to come appear to be built on solid foundations. Few deny that Germany were worthy winners and the team of the tournament.

Small Margins

Despite the odd flash of genius Barçelona’s Lionel Messi failed to provide the moment of genius capable of settling Argentina’s nerves, or even testing the Goalkeeper of the Tournament, Germany’s sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. But Germany didn’t have everything their own way.

Argentina had the best of the first half and even had the ball in the net, but Argentina should have taken the lead earlier. Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín will have nightmares for the rest of his career over the glaring miss that prolongs an even longer wait for silverware than Germany’s for his country. The Albiceleste last lifted a major trophy in 1993 – the Copa América.

A defensive header out by Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels was inexplicably headed back into Higuaín’s path by Toni Kroos. The Real Madrid bound midfielder’s error should have been punished by Higuaín, but Neuer was quick off his line, making himself a bigger obstacle. Higuaín lobbed him, but his effort went wide. Credit to Neuer, but Higuaín had to score that.

Redemption Lost

Ten minutes later Higuaín thought that redemption had come. A glorious pass by Messi released Ezequiel Lavezzi on the right wing. Lavezzi’s cross was converted by Higuaín – a more difficult chance, but eagle-eyed assistant referee Andrea Steffani had spotted an offside and the goal was disallowed.

Germany had chances too. With half-time approaching Kroos’ corner was met by a virtually unmarked Benedikt Höwedes. His header hit the post, but the assistant referee’s flag was quickly raised as Thomas Müller was offside.

Shortly after the break Lucas Biglia put Messi through on the left of the area, but Messi pulled his shot wide of Neuer’s left hand post. A player of Messi’s class should have scored. It was far from a dirty match, but once again the directive struck. Javier Mascherano has arguably been Argentina’s most important player – allowing Messi to shin – but while no quarter was asked or given the desire to avoid cards being shown turned into a foulers’ charter.

No Quarter Asked or Given

Mascherano was booked for a lunge on Miroslav Klose after losing possession, but escaped further sanction for further fouling later, including a double-team lunge with Lucas Biglia on Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern München midfielder was the victim of some harsh treatment.

Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, plagued by injuries, replaced Lavezzi at half time and soon made a nuisance of himself. Within twenty minutes of coming on he was deservedly booked for an atrocious foul on Schweinsteiger. Agüero can have no complaints. He could have been sent off, but another offence early in the second period of extra time left Schweinsteiger bloodied as Agüero’s hand connected with the German’s head. Sami Khedira was incensed.

Khedira’s last minute replacement Christoph Kramer suffered a head injury after a collision with Marcos Rojo. Eventually, Kramer had to be replaced by Schürrle. His injury reignited the debate on whether concussed or dazed players should be allowed to play on whether they want to or not. There was no question of intent or malice in the challenge. Others were fortunate to remain on the pitch.

Exploitation

Neuer was fortunate to escape a card. Just over ten minutes into the second half he leapt high and caught Higuaín in the head with his knee. Higuaín was distinctly unimpressed, but there was no card for Neuer. Incredibly the officials penalised Higuaín. It made a mockery of the tournament as thuggery on the pitch was rewarded with a licence to foul – one that Brasilian legend Zico said had been exploited.

Far from protecting skilful players from unwanted cards and suspensions, it put a mark on their backs that was cynically exploited by the least skilful and thuggish teams – Brasil was just the highest profile example of this. This wretched approach invaded the final too. But the football was entertaining too.

Icons

Both sides tried to win. No sooner had extra time started that both sides attacked. Höwedes passed to Schürrle who went to ground after prodding it to Götze. Schürrle got up and received Götze’s pass before shooting, but Romero parried. Five minutes later Marcos Rojo delivered an excellent cross, but substitute Rodrigo Palacio’s first touch cost him dear. Neuer got off his line quickly and Palacio’s lob went wide. He should have scored.

Well into injury time Argentina had a free-kick. Messi took it and blasted it well over. The curtain fell on Argentina’s dreams of Maracanazo II and on Messi’s hopes to match national icon Diego Maradona’s place in his country’s affections.

Argentina Pip Netherlands

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 9th 2014)

Drab Spectacle

Louis van Gaal is no Felix Okey Emordi. Hailed as a genius for substituting Ajaxʼs Jasper Cillessen for penalties hero Tim Krul in the quarter-final van Gaal left no room for repetition when he replaced an ineffective Robin van Persie with Schalke04ʼs Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – his third and final substitution.

A drab 0-0 draw meant penalties and Cillessen had never saved one in 13 attempts. Argentina won the penalty shoot-out 4-2, scoring all four to bring Cillessenʼs record to 0 for 17. He got hands to Maxi Rodríguezʼ final spot-kick, but could not keep it out. Sergio Romero, who had spent a season on-loan with Monaco, but confined mainly to the bench in France was the hero. Defender Ron Vlaarʼs penalty was poor and Wesley Sneijder saw his well-saved.

Missing in Action

The match – billed as Lionel Messi versus Arjen Robben in advance didnʼt turn out that way. Bayern Münchenʼs Robben was shackled by a masterful exhibition of defending by Barçelonaʼs Javier Mascherano. Extra time was largely forgettable although Newellʼs Old Boysʼ Maxi Rodríguez should have had an assist when he put Interʼs Rodrigo Palacio through with just Cillessen to beat. Palacio nodded it into the grateful arms of Ajaxʼs shot-stopper.

Cillessen may not be a penalty stopper, but he certainly doesnʼt lack confidence or ball skills. Both Gonzalo Higuaín and the Napoli strikerʼs replacement Sergio Agüero were left with egg on their faces by the same back-heel and turn to find space to start a counter-attack. FIFA did at least learn a lesson from yesterday. A minuteʼs silence or applause was observed for the great Alfredo di Stéfano. Argentina will play Germany at the Estádio do Maracanã on Sunday while Brasil and the Netherlands will meet for third or fourth in Brasilia – the final that should have been if the thuggish Argentine dictator General Jorge Videla Redondo had not been allowed to bully his way into getting the result that he wanted in 1978.

 

 

Argentina go through as Belgium is Found Wanting

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 5th 2014)

Higuaín Shines

Argentina reached the semi-final of Brasilʼs World Cup with an efficient 1-0 victory over Marc Wilmotsʼ young Belgium side making their first appearance in the World Cup Finals since 2002 courtesy of Gonzalo Higuaínʼs excellent 8th minute strike. The build up was fortunate – the finish masterful. After twisting and turning Lionel Messi fed Real Madridʼs Ángel di María on the right.

Di María tried to put Manchester Cityʼs Pablo Zabaleta through on the overlap and was fortunate that a massive deflection off Jan Vertonghen took it into the path of Higuaín. The Napoli striker deserves all the credit for the goal which turned out to be the historic winner. Higuaín had been distinctly underwhelming in the tournament previously.

This was his first goal – an instinctive shot to goal-keeper Thibaut Courtoisʼ right. The Belgian keeper who had never tasted defeat for his country until this afternoon could do nothing about it. It proved enough to set up a semi-final clash against either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica who meet tonight. Higuaínʼs winner was the first time that Argentina had reached the semi-final in normal time since Diego Maradonaʼs prime.

Fear

It took Wilmotsʼ side over 40 minutes to fashion their best opportunity. Vertonghen was released on the left by Chelseaʼs Eden Hazard. His cross deserved a better header than Evertonʼs Kevin Mirallas provided. Sergio Romero was not required to make a save. Fifteen minutes earlier VfL Wolfsburgʼs Kevin de Bruyne at least forced Monacoʼs reserve goal-keeper Sergio Romero to make a save, but it was a long range effort that didnʼt seriously test the keeper. The rebound eluded Lille teenager Divock Origi – Romelu Lukaku remained on the bench despite finding form against the USA.

Di María was unable to continue after just over half an hour. He may be out of the tournament. Messi had yet to shine. After 38 minutes Messi was felled by Manchester United misfit Marouane Fellainiʼs persistent fouling. He picked himself up to take the free-kick, but Courtois, whose future will be resolved after the World Cup was not required to make a save.

Messi had a chance to put Belgium away in added time when put through by substitute Fernando Gago. With just Courtois to beat Messi tried to caress it past the La Liga winner with the outside of his foot, but Courtois saved well to keep Belgium in contention – just.

Officiating

Less than ten minutes into the second half the largely ineffective Hazard was fortunate that he only received a yellow card for a high tackle on Lazioʼs Lucas Biglia.

Two minutes later Enzo Pérez broke on the right wing before passing to Higuaín who blazed a trail through the Belgian defence, nutmegging Kompany before unleashing a powerful shot that not even Courtois could keep out. Fortunately for him it hit the crossbar and bounced over. Belgium had little choice, but to attack as time began to ebb. Fellaini headed Vertonghenʼs excellent cross over with an hour gone.

Shortly afterwards Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli initially gave a corner to Belgium, but after consulting his assistant changed his mind and gave a free-kick against Fellaini for fouling Ezequiel Garay. Despite this, Rizzoliʼs performance was a lesson for other referees as he kept control without showing undue leniency – apart from Hazardʼs offence – or it ever threatening to become a card-fest.

End-Game

Belgium had to press harder for an equaliser, but their attacks lacked quality. It wasnʼt until added time that they seriously threatened and even then Romero was not called into action. Their last attempt was also their best, but it came after Messi should have ended the small chance that they had.

In the centre of Argentinaʼs half Zenit Saint Petersburgʼs Axel Witsel found Mertens to his left. Mertens played it forward to Lukaku. The Chelsea striker squared it, but Garay snubbed out the danger and it eventually broke to Witsel who shot over from 23 yards. It was their last chance. Argentina were through to face either the Netherlands or surprise package Costa Rica.

It was the first time in almost a quarter of a century that Argentina had reached the semi-final of the World Cup in normal time.

 

Argentina Scrape Past Switzerland

 

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (July 1st 2014)

Late Show

Real Madridʼs Ángel di María Hernández had an awful match by his standards, missing chances and wasting possession several times, yet with just two minutes of extra time remaining he scored the winning goal. Lionel Messi was named man of the match, but did little to justify it. This was a poor match, although Ottmar Hitzfeldʼs tactics canʼt be faulted.

After being mauled by France, Hitzfeld chose to keep things tight and frustrate Messi and co. It almost worked. With less than three minutes of extra time remaining Rodrigo Palacio passed to Messi in the centre. He ran towards the area before slipping it to di María on the right. The Real Madrid man shot across the keeper to break Swiss hearts.

But they almost responded. Ricardo Rodríguez Arayaʼs corner found its way to Bayern Münchenʼs Xherdan Shaqiri on the other wing. Napoliʼs Blerim Džemailiʼs last minute header hit the post with Argentinaʼs keeper Sergio Romero beaten. It rebounded onto Džemailiʼs knee and went wide. Shortly afterwards with the Swiss keeper Diego Benaglio trying to find an equaliser di María tried an audacious effort from just inside his own half. It went just wide.

Poor

The first half had little to recommend it. Di María was repeatedly fouled. The shooting was wayward. Sergio Romero saved with his legs from Granit Xhaka after 25 minutes. Ten minutes later Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson decided that Xhakaʼs awful tackle on Ezequiel Lavezzi deserved a booking – it did.

Argentina lacked final product with di María losing possession almost 40 times in normal time, but Switzerlandʼs Josip Drmić wasted the best opportunity of the 90 minutes chipping a stranded Romero. He made such a hash of his lob that Romero caught easily. The keeper stood rooted in no-manʼs land. Drmić should have scored easily.

Switzerland invited Argentina to break them down – a task that should have been against ten men as two minutes into the second half Xhaka clattered di María. It should have been his second yellow card and therefore a red card, but Eriksson pulled play back to deny the advantage to Argentina without showing a card.

Argentina created chances for substitute Rodrigo Palacio almost as soon as he came on, but he headed wide. Higuaín had another off day. Di María was having a shocking game and Messi despite his skill could not find a way past Diego Benaglio, but for all his trick and a sumptuous volley that just cleared the bar with time running out he found the key to unlock a stubborn Swiss team with penalties looming.

Three minutes into the second half of extra time di María found his range drawing a tip over from Benaglio from his 20 yard effort. Argentina will play far better and lose, but Alejandro Sabella wonʼt care. His team are in the last eight without playing well or Messi scoring. Meanwhile, Hitzfeld has retired.

 

Messiʼs Late Goal Breaks Iranʼs Hearts

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 21st 2013)

The Late Show

Lionel Messiʼs 91st minute goal denied Carlos Queirozʼ Iran team a famous draw few would dispute their performance deserved. Alireza Haghighi had kept Argentina at bay when required. His defence had protected him well, confining the Barçelona star, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and the enterprising left-back Marcos Rojo to speculative efforts.

Ezekiel Garay should have settled Argentine nerves, but headed Messiʼs free-kick just over with less than ten minutes of the first half remaining. It was the best chance Messi and co had created in the first half. But it was hardly one way traffic either. Just before half time Fulhamʼs Askhan Dejagahʼs corner should have resulted in Iran taking a shock lead, but Jalal Hosseini headed over the bar.

Unjust

Iran played on the counter attack, frustrating Argentina and should perhaps have had the lead long before Messi decided matters. After 53 minutes Javad Nekounam dribbled through centre and passed to Dejagah. Reza Ghoochannejhadʼs header was saved by Sergio Romero. Two minutes later Serbian referee Milorad Mažić made another awful mistake. Manchester Cityʼs Pablo Zabaleta Girod brought down the Fulham man, but Mažić waved play on.

Messi and Argentina had been disappointing. With just under an hour played Messi came to life. His team-mates had failed to convert the half-chances he had created, so he tried a solo route. A trade-mark run into the danger area created the opportunity to shoot just wide of Haghighiʼs right-hand post.

Midway through the second half Pejman Montazeriʼs cross was met powerfully by Dejagah, but Romero was once again equal to the header. With three minutes injury time left a moment of individual skill by Messi decided the outcome of the match. It was hard on Iran and will raise further questions about the quality of refereeing in this tournament. The introduction of video technology canʼt come quick enough.

 

 

 

Argentina Beat Plucky Bosnia-Herzegovina – Just

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 15th 2014)

A Date with History

Bosnia-Herzegovina couldnʼt have had a tougher introduction to the grandest stage of world football. After the trauma of the rebirth of their country in the war that saw the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, football offers a unifying force, especially now. They topped their group with Manchester Cityʼs Edin Džeko playing a starring role. While this team are viewed as heroes in their country Zlatan Ibrahimović is seen as a traitor for choosing Sweden over his Bosnian origins.

Had the mercurial Ibrahimović made a different choice he would have had the chance to settle scores in a different context with former Barçelona team-mate Lionel Messi and his supremely talented Argentinian colleagues. It is a baptism most new-comers to the World Cup could do without. However, they could not be in better hands. They are currently managed by their greatest ever player – also deemed the best ever player Paris Saint-Germain ever had – Safet Sušić, an attacking midfielder of rare ability.

Worst Start

They couldnʼt have had a much worse start, conceding the fastest goal in the tournament so far, as Messiʼs free-kick was headed on by Marcos Rojo after three minutes. It hit the unfortunate defender Sead Kolašinac and deflected off him past Asmir Begović. Since conceding the early goal they held their own. Ten minutes later Sergio Romero was forced into action to deny Izet Harjović when the Bosnian winger beat the off-side trap.

Messi has looked a shadow of the player he is for his club, but his form for Argentina has always been dire at World Cups. He has only scored once in 31 efforts and that was eight years ago in the 6-0 rout of Serbia and Montenegro and that was the sixth when the result was not in doubt.

With chances at a premium Javier Mascherano decided that it was worth taking a pot shot from 30 yards out, but Begović wonʼt be beaten from that distance, especially when itʼs hit straight at him. With less than five minutes of the first half remaining Lazioʼs Senad Lulićʼs header was tipped past the post by Romero. Argentina led, but they barely deserved it.

Cometh the Men

On the hour Messi was gifted possession. He released Sergio Agüero on the right. Agüeroʼs pass for Gonazalo Higuaín was too close to Begović who smothered it. Five minutes earlier Agüero wasted a golden opportunity shooting well over the bar. After a poor night by his high standards Messi reignited Argentina with an excellent finish worthy of the move that created the opportunity.

A one-two with Higuaín carved the Bosnian defence apart after 66 minutes. Messi cut inside and shot from the edge of the area, scoring off Begovićʼs right-hand post. Stoke Cityʼs keeper had no chance – Messi has arrived at the Maracanã and Argentina grow in confidence. Agüero went close again before Mascheranoʼs interception released Messi who ran at the heart of the Bosnian defence before finding Agüero, whose cross was cleared by Emir Spahić at the expense of a corner.

VfB Stuttgartʼs striker Vedad Ibišević wrote his name large in the history of Bosnian sport. He scored his countryʼs first goal in a major finals after 85 minutes. Lulić rampaged down the left flank before a magnificent through ball found Ibišević. Taking nothing away from the Bosnian striker Romero will be disappointed with his effort – it went in off his leg. Argentina held on to win 2-1.