Saturday, July 03, 2010
My mind went back to Juan Roman Riquelme in 2006, missing a similar penalty for Villareal against Arsenal that would have taken them to the Champions League final. Riquelme, of course, more or less carried the Spanish side that season. But the European Cup is not quite the World Cup, and Riquelme always affected rather a disinterested attitude towards his European clubs.
But first to the opening match of the day:
Holland v. Brazil
To call the result of this one a shock would be an exaggeration, but a surprise, certainly. Especially after Brazil scored that early goal, Andre Ooijer getting his geometry horribly wrong, after which the Dutch pressed but looked unlikely to find an opening, while the smooth interplay of Brazil's front three promised more goals.
That all changed in the second half, and the seeds of Holland's victory could be found on Brazil's left flank, where Michel Bastos was finally found out. The suspension of Ramires, one of Brazil's best players against Chile, was felt keenly, with Felipe Melo not proving as shrewd a covering midfielder as the Benfica man.
As it happened, Bastos found himself in trouble against the ever-dangerous Arjen Robben, but not quite as expected: Robben did beat Bastos on the inside a few times, but Melo was normally there to cover...or occasionally foul. Instead, it was the many unnecessary and clumsy fouls which Bastos was induced to inflict on Robben that hurt Brazil; the first goal stemmed directly from one of them. It's hard to say whether Melo or Julio Cesar was more at fault for that catastrophic equaliser, but if you step into the path of your goalkeeper, you ought to be pretty sure that you can put in a clearing header.
Robben is showing definite signs of approaching his best form, and after the first Dutch goal the Brazilians simply couldn't deal with him, allowing him to thrust past them time and again. The second Dutch goal again had its origin on the Brazilian left flank, with Robben winning a corner which the Dutch worked perfectly to go in front.
The Brazilians seemed to become obsessed with the perceived Dutch over-reactions to the fouling (and it's true that Robben and others were guilty of this at times), but it was a psychological error, preventing them from finding the werewithal to get back into the game, and ultimately leading to Felipe Melo's violent foul on Robben which earned him a deserved red card. In truth, neither side was entirely innocent in what was a very niggly match; in that respect, it was similar to the two sides' first World Cup encounter, in 1974. In that game, too, a Brazilian player was sent off.
Uruguay v. Ghana
For most of the mediocre first half Uruguay were marginally the better side, although neither team looked particularly impressive. The goal just before the break was completely unexpected, some insouciance from Egidio Arevalo allowing Sulley Muntari enough time to turn and shoot past an unsighted goalkeeper.
But it did have the effect of opening up the game in the second period, which was pleasingly lively. Diego Forlan's equalising free kick was the second example in this tournament (after Keisuke Honda's swerving special against Denmark) of the Jabulani ball curving first one way, then the other. A true goalkeeper's nightmare.
Uruguay showed the more invention in attack after that and should probably have gone in front after the hour; Luis Suarez missed a good volleyed chance after some good work from Forlan on the left, and was only denied by a superb save from Richard Kingson soon afterwards. He was also wrongly called offside when clean through on goal at one point.
The pendulum swung in extra time, when the Ghanaians (despite the extra time against the USA) looked more energetic. Muntari blazed wide after a Ghanaian penalty claim, and Gyan might have done better when a fearful defensive error from Arevalo presented him with the ball in the box. Then there was the penalty...enough said.
I can't see the Dutch slipping up against a Uruguay side which will be without not only Suarez, but also a key defender in Jorge Fucile, who has been one of the best fullbacks of the tournament. In his absence, Oscar Tabarez will probably restore Mauricio Victorino to the left side of defence, from which he was removed after the opening game. Not a good sign against a confident and very effective Robben.
The Dutch will not be at full strength either, without both Gregory van der Wiel and Nigel de Jong, who has fulfilled the important role of midfield destroyer for the Dutch throughout. But they probably have the personnel to fill the gaps adequately, while Uruguay are unlikely to be able to recreate the Suarez-Forlan partnership with an alternate frontman.