World Cup Qualifying, Europe: Duopoly collapses in Berlin, Madrid

Leave a comment

Three days after providing evidence of a bipolar European soccer world, Germany and Spain were part of Tuesday’s most shocking results. Granted, home draws against good teams aren’t shocking in and of themselves. It’s the context of the results that make you appreciate what happened in Madrid and Berlin.

Let’s start in Iberia, where the world champions were in the process of another ho-hum, dominant in realtime if not the scoresheet-victory. An early goal from Sergio Ramos had given the Spaniards a 1-0 lead on France, and while Cesc Fábregas failed to double that lead when his spot kick was blocked by Hugo Lloris, this match had the same sense of redundant inevitability that accompanies all of Spain’s redundant and inevitable results.

The last time Spain was drawn at home in an official game was September 2005. They had gone 24 straight qualifiers (World Cup and European Championships) without a draw, let alone a loss. If waiting out a Spain win over France seemed like a waste of time, it’s because we had little reason to think otherwise.

But then, as Spain was trying to kill the clock, there was a  turnover. For some reason or another, France to fight what we all saw coming: Another Spain win. Collecting the ball, Les Bleus quickly moved into the counter, finding a huge, open, unmanned field in front of them. Moussa Sissoko brought the ball forward onto an inexplicably outnumbered Spanish defense.

How could this be happening? How did Spain, up 1-0 in the 94th minute, put themselves in a situation to be outmanned on a counterattack?

The ball went left to Franck Ríbery, his first touch a bullet cross to Olivier Giroud near the spot. Defying his teammates’ attempt to behead him, the Arsenal striker got his head around the ball, redirecting the equalizer just inside Iker Casillas’s right post, somehow giving France a point at the Vicente Calderón.

It’s exactly the outcome you always suspect Spain’s in danger of allowing, yet in 24 previous qualifiers, it hadn’t happened. No team had taken a point in Spain since Serbia seven years ago. Why France, and why now?

While Spain could have played better, it’s difficult to take anything away from a France squad that looked good for an equalizer long before Giroud leveled the score. Fighting through the surroundings, history, and inevitability, Les Bleus exhibited a tenacity for which their new coach is known. Though it’s debatable how often Didier Deschamps’ teams live up to that convenient reputation, tonight France were relentless. Their point in Madrid is an early tent pole for Deschamps’ reign.

MORE: Looking at the rest of Europe’s Tuesday results

At the other end of Tuesday’s spectrum is Germany, who played to some of the negative perceptions of the Joachim Löw era. Up 4-0 after 56 minutes against Sweden (in theory, the second best team of their group), the Germans seemed en route to a second consecutive statement game. At full time, they certainly sent a message, though one entirely different from the 6-1 pasting they gave Ireland on Friday. Instead, Germany gave up four goals in the last half hour and were drawn, 4-4.

The result was far more indicting than Spain’s, and while most of that is due to allowing four goals (instead of one), narrative plays a big part. In the wake of Germany’s disappointment at Euro 2012, it’s become more common to question the team’s mental stength. Call it character, resolve, toughness – whatever adjective you’d like. The complaints seek to explain why a team with so much talent can give performances like Tuesday’s.

With those critiques already in the public domain, there’ll be a temptation to make too much out of this admittedly shocking result. However, this match needs to be looked at for what it was: a shock. Löw and his staff need to determine why it happened and eliminate it, but given the sustained success die Nationalmannschaft have had under Löw, it would be a mistake to assume there are systemic problems in the team. At least, in lieu of further disappointments, “one off” is the far more reasonable conclusion.

With the possible exception to the loss in Ukraine to Italy, there hasn’t been a major setback in German soccer since 2004, tonight included.

 

Dempsey, Sounders steal a point on wild night in Portland

Pete Christopher/The Oregonian via AP
Leave a comment

The game in 100 words (or less): An entire game can change in the blink of an eye. For the Seattle Sounders, that blink came in the 44th minute of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Timbers. Up 1-0 by way of Joevin Jones’ opener in the 27th minute, the defending MLS Cup champs were poised to head into halftime with a one-goal advantage and every belief imaginable that they’d been the better team for the entire first half. Blink. Brad Evans wrapped his legs around Darlington Nagbe, giving away a penalty and earning himself a red card, just like that, in the blink of an eye. Fanendo Adi stepped up to convert from the spot, but it still was to be a hard-fought 1-1 scoreline from Seattle’s perspective. Then, Dairon Asprilla got loose, completely unmarked atop the six-yard box, on a corner kick, and it was 2-1 after four minutes of first-half stoppage time. 45 more minutes pass, and the Timbers… blink. Clint Dempsey, 34 years old but fresh off the bench 40 minutes earlier, out-leaps everyone in the box and heads past Jake Gleeson to steal a point for Seattle.

[ MORE: San Jose fire Kinnear after 2.5 seasons ]

Three Four moments that mattered

27′ — Jones gets two chances, puts the second away — It’s a classic case of “I dropped my controller” from Alvas Powell, who just stops as Jones cuts across the penalty area. There’s no reason Jones should get a second look on this one.

44′ — Evans brings down Nagbe in the box, sees red — Goodbye, lead. Goodbye 11 versus 11. Things would unravel very quickly for Seattle.

45+4′ — Asprilla rises above to make it 2-1 — Seattle’s marking of Asprilla was nonexistent, and the Colombian showed off some serious hops to get his head to David Guzman’s corner kick.

90+4′ — Dempsey heads home deep in stoppage time — A costly turnover by Asprilla, a hit-it-and-pray cross by Roman Torres, and Dempsey snatches a point at the death.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Cristian Roldan

Goalscorers: Jones (27′), Adi (45′ – PK), Asprilla (45+4′), Dempsey (90+4′)

Russia has reasons for optimism despite Confed Cup exit

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MOSCOW (AP) When the anger subsides after another group stage exit and another goalkeeping blunder, Russian fans might find they can be proud of their team at the Confederations Cup.

Russia failed to reach the knockout rounds of a fourth major tournament in a row, but there’s no shame in losing by one goal to European champion Portugal and North American champion Mexico.

“We will move on,” coach Stanislav Cherchesov said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico. “We have won (the fans’) hearts and minds to a certain extent in this month that we have been together … I think that we have given some reasons to feel optimistic about us.”

If Russia’s fans agreed with Cherchesov that Russia had done well to limit Portugal to a single Cristiano Ronaldo goal, there was frustration that Russia hadn’t done better against a poor Mexican side.

Russia wasted chances to exploit Mexico’s ragged defending and add to Alexander Samedov’s opener, while goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev performed an inexplicable lunge which allowed Hirving Lozano to head in the winner. Akinfeev was lucky not to be red-carded, too, after his foot caught Lozano in the chest.

Akinfeev was the immediate scapegoat for Russia’s exit, with fans and newspapers calling for his removal.

The most-capped player in the squad – the Mexico game was his 101st international appearance – Akinfeev’s bulletproof consistency in the Russian Premier League has kept him the undisputed national-team No. 1 for years.

When the world is watching, though, he gets flustered and makes mistakes.

Against South Korea at the 2014 World Cup, an innocuous long shot slipped from his grasp and went in, paving the way for another early Russian exit from the tournament. There have been more than a few blunders in the 43 games since Akinfeev last kept a clean sheet for CSKA in the Champions League, too.

But it’s hard to see who could replace him. The naturalized Brazilian reserve keeper Guilheme is agile but injury prone, while Vladimir Gabulov is a solid but unspectacular veteran. Zenit St. Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin challenged Akinfeev for a while, but was brought low by his own tendency for embarrassing errors.

On the positive side for Russia, defender Georgy Dzhikiya was solid in all three group games after having only made his debut on June 5, and Cherchesov’s three-man back line was mostly reliable.

Less successful was Cherchesov’s attempt to bolster the midfield by starting Roman Shishkin – usually a defender – in a defensive midfield role against Portugal and Mexico, while 33-year-old ex-Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov did his World Cup hopes no favors with a red card Saturday.

Russia’s run of injuries before the tournament weakened the midfield in particular, with Alan Dzagoev and the promising Roman Zobnin both missing out. Forward Artyom Dzyuba’s absence left Cherchesov relying heavily on Fyodor Smolov, who showed touches of class but missed a good chance against Portugal.

Perhaps the biggest damage from Russia’s Confederations Cup exit will be to Russian pride.

Officials have often bragged that the home advantage for next year’s World Cup could drive Russia to new heights, perhaps a repeat of South Korea’s charge to the semifinals in 2002. Those expectations are now being reviewed.

Just one World Cup host in history – South Africa in 2010 – has failed to get out of the group stage. Avoiding a repeat may be the most Russia can hope for.

FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers host Sounders in PNW showdown

Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images
Leave a comment

They don’t get much bigger, or more heated, than this one in MLS — it’s Portland versus Seattle, the Timbers versus the Sounders, tonight at Providence Park (10 p.m. ET).

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Timbers vs. Sounders ]

To keep up-to-the-second informed on proceedings in Portland this evening, hit the above link, or click right here.

Seattle won the first meeting between these sides, 1-0 back on May 27, on their home turf at CenturyLink Field. Cristian Roldan, who’ll depart for U.S. national team camp following Sunday’s game, scored the only goal that afternoon in Seattle, a 4th-minute header from three yards out.

Mustafi: Arsenal players powerless, hope “brilliant” Sanchez will stay

Photo by Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Shkodran Mustafi admits that he, along with his Arsenal teammates, feels helpless with over the ongoing transfer saga of Alexis Sanchez.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

The Chilean superstar is linked with a move away from Arsenal this summer, as the Gunners fell out of the Premier League’s top-four and the 28-year-old’s contract is set to expire next summer. Perhaps most importantly, Sanchez hasn’t so much as publicly stated a desire to remain at the club, which, from the outside, appears to have left his future in even greater doubt.

Mustafi admits he hasn’t a clue how things will shake out in the coming weeks, but he’s quick with a pleading sales pitch for Sanchez to stay — quotes from Goal.com:

“I have no idea. Obviously the other players cannot make that decision, he has to make that decision.

“I’m not too much involved. I hope he stays because he is a really brilliant football player but there’s nothing in my hands that I can do.”

[ MORE: De Boer set to be named new Crystal Palace boss ]

Arsenal would likely have to double (if not more) Sanchez’s current $180,000 weekly wages in order to convince him to forego a season in the UEFA Champions League and commit his long-term future to a club presently trending in the wrong direction.