World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.

 

Messi and Ronaldo Exit Stage Left

When the final whistle blew on June 26th, pundits, fans, and even the most casual of observers were drawn to the top half of the left side of the knockout bracket. Uruguay v Portugal and Argentina v France were intriguing, not because of the match-ups themselves, but because of what they could yield.

A Portugal v Argentina, ahem Ronaldo v Messi matchup would be a show stopper. It'd be the type of game every advertiser could only dream of--except maybe if it had been in the finals. 

Both players would have much to prove. Despite winning nearly every major trophy, neither have won the World Cup. Ronaldo, at least, won the European Championship two years ago in France--but some would be quick to point out, he wasn't on the pitch for the victory. Messi has managed to earn the ire of many Albiceleste fans, who claim the Barcelona star plays harder for his club than his nation. 

But the hopes for a dream World Cup quarterfinal match up were, for fans and marketing managers alike, all for naught. 

Argentina succumbed to France side that seemed finally willing to fire on all cylinders, even if it took well going down 2-1 to realize their potential. For Messi, it seemed more like a necessary exercise that capped off a miserable Russian adventure. His teammates, and really the Argentine manager, seemed far too willing to let their talisman take over answering nearly every question tactically. With a team chock full of super stars, it was confounding to see just how anemic they looked in attack. And how cynical they looked in defense, reckless tackle after reckless tackle made it surprising they ended with eleven players on the field. 

But why couldn't Jorge Sampaoli find a way to fit Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Ganzalo Higuain, in the lineup at the same time as Messi? Some argued it's because they all played similar styles. But wouldn't you want to have your best scoring and creative threats on the pitch simultaneously? It seemed, though, being content to let Messi carry the team was the overall strategy. Everyone else would fall in line. 

Messi, surely, is a game changer. That type of superstar coming once (or twice in this case) a generation. But even the most successful ones--Pele, Diego Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo--had teammates who didn't just pull their own weight, but also stepped into the breech when their leader was having a bad day. Those role players turned on field leaders were in short supply and thus Messi and Company are headed home. 

For Portugal, a team that seemed far more adventurous and unified than Argentina, they fell victim to a surprisingly in-form Uruguay team. The South American side's strong central defense duo, who play together at the club level too, made one mistake during the Round of 16 match up. Portuguese defender Pepe made them pay. But it wasUruguay's dynamic due from Salto, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who ran riot at the opposite end of the pitch with Cavani burying two wonderful goals--the first, possibly the best worked combination play of the tournament. 

It's not a stretch so say that Portugal's early exit isn't surprising. Maybe I'm wrong. But even when one takes into account their title in France two years ago, we'd all be remiss to think it was anything but a fluke. The Ronaldo led side couldn't win a match in the group phase and only progressed because of the expanded tournament field. They finished third to Hungary and Iceland. But it took them all the way to the semi-finals against Wales to win their one and only match during regulation time (they won the finals vs host France via a 109th minute goal by Eder). 

Unlike the Argentines, the Portuguese side played with a bit more tactical and strategic unity. They had skilled players outside of Ronaldo, but nothing of the firepower Sampaoli refused to utilize. Despite the lack of reserves, Portugal was far more entertaining and we were left knowing they put everything into each performance in Russia. Ronaldo was certainly impressive during the tournament, scoring a hat trick in his first group match versus Spain. But where Messi's teammates' ill-discipline left him hanging, Ronaldo could play knowing his teammates wouldn't let him down because of lack of concentration. Rather they'd simply be out classed. Nonetheless the European Champions are headed home early too. 

Some thought that a Ronaldo v Messi match up in the quarter finals would end the debate over who's better. I highly doubt that. If their multiple head to head match-ups when playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona haven't solve that riddle, one match at the World Cup wouldn't likely tip the balance. 

Both teams are home by now, leaving exactly when they should have. Although, Argentina didn't deserve to make out of their group. They were far too uninspiring to have been rewarded with an extra game.

Now we're left with a tournament bereft of a mega star, but plenty eagerly waiting to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for their shared throne. 

 

Messi Didn't Crash Out After All

Five days ago, I wrote about the possibility of Messi not making it to the knockout stage. The pressure was on the Albicelestes captain after leading Argentina to a measly one point in the first two games.

Fast forward to today's final game against a surging Nigeria side and there was a real chance Messi and Company could be headed home far too early. 

Would the Barcelona star find a way to rescue his teammates, just like he did against Ecuador on the last night of qualifying? Or would he further speculation that he just didn't care about playing for Argentina?

Less than a quarter of an hour in to the game and Messi told us exactly what his intentions were. Controlling a pin point driven ball from just inside Argentina's attacking half off the boot of Ever Banega, Messi's first touch with his left thigh beat his mark. And before the ball could even hit the ground his right foot nestled the ball perfectly out in front of his stride, setting up a perfect finish with his weaker right foot. Argentina 1, Nigeria 0.

Fifteen minutes later, Messi nearly struck again. His freekick from just outside the box on the left side of the D was tipped on to the post by the young Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. 

The half ended 1-0 and Argentina looked likely to advance. But, five minutes into the 2nd act, Mascherano pulled down a Nigerian player in the box during a corner kick. The Turkish referee had no choice, but award a penalty kick. Victor Moses stepped up to bury it in the back of the net. 

Argentina was in panic mode for the next 35 minutes, even being saved by VAR of possible second penalty scare. But in the 86th minute, Marcos Rojo latched on to a cross from Gabriel Mercado and side footed the ball into the bottom right hand corner past a diving Uzoho. 

Messi and his merry band of underperforming teammates had salvaged their World Cup. Next up is a strong France side, who fielded a weakened team in their final match against Denmark earlier in the day. But there's a chance Messi and Ronaldo could meet in the Quarterfinals, if both of their teams win their first knockout game. 

Let's not hold our collective breaths, however. Both sides could end their Russian adventure on Saturday. 

Is Messi Crashing Out?

After Argentina's 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia, it seems likely Messi and Co are headed towards an early exit from the 2018 edition of the the World Cup. 

It's certainly true the Albicelestes rely heavily on Messi's to get them through rough patches. After a dismal qualifying campaign and on the brink of being left out of the festivities in Russia, Messi single handedly helped Argentina punch their ticket with a masterful display against Ecuador. 

But so far in Russia, Messi has failed to find the spark needed to overcome whatever is ailing the Argentine side. Against Iceland's resolute defending, Messi seemed unable to breakdown his opponents. He even, uncharacteristically, missed a penalty kick. 

And then came today's match up with Croatia. Outside of an early chance, there seemed to be little creativity coming from the Barcelona player. Without his innovation in the attacking third, Argentina looked lost at sea. It was truly difficult to watch. 

In order to make it to the next round, Argentina will need Messi to channel whatever it was that brought him that performance last fall. Without it, they may be on their way back home much sooner than all of us thought. 

But is it all Messi's fault? Sure, he's the talisman. But it's not like there aren't other superstars on the team. Where have they been? Why haven't they taken the initiative? Why haven't they picked up some of the slack?

Messi deserves more from his teammates. If they don't step up, Tuesday may be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina jersey.