Rabat - This weekend we won’t have our traditional dose of La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, or Premier League (that enthused and fairly overrated league) matches. But the international friendlies were just as exquisite, with some fixtures proving to be of the stamina and texture of a world cup semi final, or even final.
Rabat – This weekend we won’t have our traditional dose of La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, or Premier League (that enthused and fairly overrated league) matches. But the international friendlies were just as exquisite, with some fixtures proving to be of the stamina and texture of a world cup semi final, or even final.
Morocco Shines in Turin, but needs some defensive works
I have said so much about the Atlas Lions’ current shape that I’m usually guilty, though understandably, of self-plagiarism when discussing another brilliant performance from Hervé Renard’s boys.
Serbia may not be in the same category as Spain or Portugal (two of the teams that Morocco will be facing in Russia), but the game was nonetheless a much-needed warm-up, a training-like session aimed at giving the coach hints about what is working right now, how to improve it, and, ultimately, how to fix what is not working. And what does not seem to be working right now is the flow in the midfield. But there is, too, some lack of harmony in the defensive system.
Morocco did play well, with flow and harmony coming from crosses, and some bits of mastery in the midfield as well. There were also some moments of inspiration in the game, that energized and passionate spirit of players who know they’ll be facing the likes of Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo three months from now.
Morocco won by 2-1, a clear indication that, generally speaking, Renard’s boys do have the talents and spirit it takes to win matches. However, against the likes of Spain and Portugal, where the ball quickly flows from the midfield to the sides, and then inside the penalty area, like a tide of an irresistible tsunami, you need an almost impenetrable defensive fortress.
Serbia’s equalizer, which left Morocco’s defenders laughably helpless, seemed too easy. And so, to stop the lethal Cristiano headers, or the incessant Alba crosses, or the seamless and elegant Isco-Iniesta midfield, you need more inspiration and urgency than what the Atlas Lions displayed yesterday. Morocco shined in Turin, but it can do better; it has to do better.
France’s golden generation is still to improve
If a game shocked football fans in this international break, it was France VS Colombia. You may not be a Francophile, but Les Bleus are without doubt one of the most well-equipped and fun-to-watch squads around right now. It’s almost like a Brazil squad, a beautiful combination of individualities and collective depth.
With the talents they have at their disposal right now, and all of them playing determining positions in Europe’s leading clubs, France is a reservoir of unbelievable talents. Sadly, however, a Falcao and Rodriguez-led Colombia descended upon Les Bleus yesterday like a hurricane. France, dominating the first minutes, led the game by 2-0.
The South Americans quickly came back, however. And non content to have a draw with one Europe’s footballing powerhouse, the South Americans drove the third goal home with an elegant penalty kick from Quintero.
The defeat was a shocking surprise—allow me the pleonasm—for the stars-filled French squad, perhaps even so for the Colombians. But, as they say, “A quelque chose malheur est bon.” France has everything it takes to win Russia 2018, but they need to invest in better ways to streamline their otherwise unstoppable factory of elegant players.
Spain VS Germany—A World Cup final?
Watching these two teams play is always an artistic event, a meeting ground for beauty and effectiveness. Nonetheless, had it not been for the sheer technical prowess of David Degea—who performed yet another irreproachable match—Germany could have easily won the game by 3 or 4-1. But that is exactly what makes good teams: the presence of great players who step up in the most defining hours. No wonder these two favorites for Russia ended on an even score of 1-1. And, watch out, this could be a textbook match of a semi final or final in Russia this summer.
Ronaldo Outshines Salah
Egypt VS Portugal was not quite an encounter of two national squads; it was, more to the point, an opportunity for the growing Mohamed Salah to compare his current mind-blowing shape to the indefatigably comforting presence of the established Cristiano Ronaldo.
A friend of mine recently told me that Salah is a growing beast. How not to agree with that given the Egyptian’s goal against Ronaldo’s side? Salah receives a pass outside of the penalty box at the 55th minute.
A normal player would have controlled and looked for team play. Perhaps pass the ball to a teammate inside the box, or maybe attempt a cross. But Sallah is no normal player, so he did what he has been doing since he joined Liverpool last summer: score improbable goals that leave goal keepers wondering “How did he do that?”
But for all the brilliance ofSalah’s performance yesterday, in the end, it was Cristiano who had more momentum. With two goals –again with that magical head of his—in added time, the Madrista once again made the statement he is been making since he awoke from his goal scoring slumber: “I’ll be around for a while, and you don’t get to write me off, not yet at least.” So: Sallah is perhaps the future of football, but Ronaldo is its present, which explains yesterday’s score line: 2-1 in favor of Cristiano and cos.
A Messi-less Argentina Stuns Italy—Whatever happened to La Squadra Azura?
Italy showed one thing against a Dimaria-led Argentina: they no longer are the squad they once were. No wonder they failed to make it to Russia. And so Messi could serenely watch his teammates crucify veteran Buffon and the lot of indecisive attacking bunch that the Italian squad has turned into.
While stunning Italy, however, the superb goals from Banega and Lanzini are an invitation for improvement for this Italian squad we used to admire: In modern football, having a good keeper and an almost impenetrable defense is good.
But scoring is key. Insigne and Immobile can be robust and beastly strikers at time. They are however sporadic scorers for the national squad. So perhaps it is good that they will not be in Russia this summer. In four years, they need to reinvent their playing philosophy, bring back that Del Piero, Totti, and Pirlo-led Italy in which the danger was constantly imminent and could come from anywhere.
Nigeria shocks Poland
Nigeria’s Super Eagles’ 1-0 victory over Lewandowski’s now world class Poland national squad was a reminder that African teams should not be written off in this 2018 edition. If Morocco succeeds the miracle that Hervé has promised he and his boys would deliver, with other African teams in less deadly groups, the continent may pass that Quarterfinals barrier that has been unnerving African fans for decades. So, “Go Africa!”
Neymar-less Brazil trashes the host—Is Brazil back from the 7-1 humiliation?
Of Tite’s Brazil, what can one say? The Brazilian coach says that he wants to engineer his team on the basis of talented bunch of the 1982 generation. And he is not very far from so grand a dream, at least when you consider the succession of mouthwatering performances that the team has delivered since the former Corinthians man took over a lackadaisical Neymar-dependent and Dunga-coached squad.
So: 3-0 against Russia yesterday, with Paulinho and Coutinho scoring; with the likes of Jesus, Willian, Coutinho, Marcelo, and what have you, not to mention that the 2014 frustrating Neymar-dependency is a long-forgotten nightmare, this squad will be aiming to give their Brazilians and global fans what people expect from Brazil: sheer joy, winning coupled with pure beauty, that footballing joie de vivre of which Brazil alone has the secret.
These friendlies gave us what I call glimpses of Russia 2018: Germany can secure a successive win; Spain is great, but not indomitable; Portugal can count on Ronaldo’s current beastly shape; Brazil is not the fragile giant it was four years ago; France can win but is far from being consolidated; African teams can be the surprising bunch; and most of all, given South Americans’ immaculate performances (with Uruguay and Costa Rica also securing beautiful wins this week), this Russian World Cup may well be leaning towards a South American victory.
But how I wish an African squad can be the champions! Why not?