Dive, poor officiating get 2014 World Cup off to a bad start

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Soccer’s too big to be hurt by one dive, but if there’s one thing the sport’s marquee event didn’t need on day one, it was simulation deciding a match. Perhaps worse: The decision of the game’s referee showed how far the sport is from getting a handle on the problem.

Yet that’s where we are after Day 1 of the 2014 World Cup — having to reconcile why a Brazilian attacker electing to flop on his back was able to sway the tournament’s opening match. Thanks to Fred’s antics, a 1-1 match eventually became a 3-1 win over Croatia, with great performances by Neymar and Oscar overshadowed by their teammate’s theatrics.

It’s part of my job to make sure Neymar and Oscar aren’t forgotten. Neymar scored twice in his World Cup debut, and Oscar, after it appeared as if he’d be marginalized on the flank, was one of the match’s two most influential players. As a team, Brazil may have failed to meet its own standards, but the flashes of brilliance for the team’s two most creative players bodes well for the team’s improvement.

Another part of my job is to try to depict the reality of the situation, and no matter how much we want to focus on the stars, it’d be disingenuous to overlook the influence the day’s two villains had on the result. If Fred’s malice hadn’t met Yuishi Nishimura’s mistake, we’d be talking about a Brazil draw.

[ MORE: Two Neymar goals, moment of controversy see Brazil start with 3-1 win over Croatia ]
[ MORE: Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia ]

The moment came in the 69th minute, when a movement down Brazil’s right gave Oscar a chance to find Fred near the spot. As the Selecao striker turned with Croatian defender Dejan Lovran on his back, Fred sensed his opportunity. Unfortunately for too many in this game, that meant trying to deceive the referee, and in this instance, that deception was rewarded. The ensuing penalty kick proved to be Brazil’s winning goal.

As terrible as that sounds, it’d be unfair to put too much blame on Fred’s shoulders. It’s easy to say he should be bound to a higher ethic, but unless a player’s safety is involved, the only ethic athletes ascribe to is a competitive one. Until there’s some disincentive to diving — something in the way the game is governed that makes it more viable for Fred to try to create a chance than take his luck with the official’s perspective — there’s only so much we can blame the player.

That leaves us with two culprits: Nishimura and the game itself, both of which deserve blame. Yet whereas one party’s mistake was a fault of commission, the other’s is a product of neglect.

source:
Referee Yuichi Nishimura gives a penalty kick against Croatia during the opening game of the World Cup. Croatia, even at 1-1 when the call was made, went on to lose to Brazil, 3-1. (AP Photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Pool)

Nishimura surely thought he saw a foul. The question is why. There’s no angle of that play that even comes close to depicting a Lovren foul. In real-time, at full speed, or in slow motion, what was happening was so transparent as to be predictable.

We knew Fred would dive. We’ve seen that play so many times, we know to look for it. Again, the question is why — why didn’t Nishimura look for it, too?

With 63 games left in the tournament, FIFA has a chance to correct the problem. Nishimura’s World Cup may be done. And for Croatia, while they may have been robbed of a point today, the team has two more games to make up for the slight. If they don’t make the knockout round, they’ll have themselves to blame, too.

The more important problems come in the bigger picture. As much as we talk about diving, there is no real movement to get it out of the game. In fact, as globalization’s exposed us to more styles, more often, there’s a tendency to see diving from a different perspective. Augmenting the puritanical and impractical view we hear from England, we’re now exposed to more pragmatic justifications of diving. For some, it’s just part of the game.

But do we want to leave it as part of the game? If so, let’s stop talking about controversial calls and teams being wronged. Instead, let’s just accept this world of competitive chaos and embrace a liberal view. Unless something’s clearly in conflict with one of the game’s laws, let’s applaud a player’s ingenuity. Let’s embrace the limits.

[ MORE: Soccerly cover the World Cup ]

If, however, people don’t want more calls like today’s, Fred needs a disincentive. There needs to be a bigger crackdown on simulation. There need to be stiffer penalties and more reviews, perhaps in real-time. The game has to start taking the issue seriously.

That it didn’t before today’s match in Sao Paulo left a lot of fans to wonder how one player, one official, and a lack of urgency were allowed to turn game one. And unfortunately, this won’t be the last time we have this conversation.

Bobby Wood, Hamburg in danger of relegation after latest defeat

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Three matches remain in the Bundesliga season, and one U.S. Men’s National Team star might not be able to fend off relegation in his first top-flight campaign in Germany.

[ MORE: Tottenham revel in North London, but they want more ]

USMNT forward Bobby Wood and his Hamburg side fell 4-0 to Augsburg on Sunday, leaving HSV in 16th place in the German table with just several weeks left to play.

Wood has performed well with Hamburg during the 2016/17 season, scoring nine goals across all competitions, however, his side could surely use more goals in the coming weeks.

Including Sunday’s road loss, Hamburg has now lost three consecutive matches and puts Markus Gisdol’s men in a world of trouble down the stretch. Hamburg will face Mainz, Schalke and Wolfsburg over the final weeks of the season, and while those fixtures are actually pretty favorable, it still won’t be an easy test to fend off survival.

With only 18 teams playing in the top two flights of German soccer, the bottom two clubs in the Bundesliga are automatically relegated to Bundesliga.2, while the team that finishes in 16th participates in a playoff with the third-place side from the second division (currently Hanover 96).

Tottenham revel in ruling North London, but want more

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LONDON — The penultimate game at White Hart Lane produced a fitting farewell.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-0 on Sunday to not only keep their Premier League title hopes alive but also dominate North London for the first time in over two decades.

“North London is ours!” sang Tottenham’s fans as they taunted the small, disconsolate group of Arsenal fans tucked away in the far corner of the Lane. They must’ve wanted the ground to open up and swallow them. The emotions for Tottenham’s fans was entirely differently.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Spurs, Arsenal

A sense of relief and pride in the air was palpable as Spurs’ upward trajectory continues and they’ll finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years.

After Friday’s announcement that Spurs will be playing at Wembley next season ahead of moving into their new 61,000 capacity home for the 2018-19 campaign, the final edition of the North London derby at White Hart Lane was set.

For everyone connected to Tottenham it was a fairytale ending to the rivalry.

For manager Mauricio Pochettino and his players it was a nice way to provide a memorable moment, but their eyes are on a bigger prize.

“We are in the race for the title, we reduced the gap to Chelsea again and that is, for us, what we need to be focused on now,” Pochettino said. “We have another important game against West Ham on Friday.”

If Tottenham beat West Ham on Friday they momentarily be just one point behind Chelsea who play three days later against Middlesbrough.

Spurs have bigger fish to fry than their neighbors who appearing to be heading in a very different direction.

The ground shook at Spurs’ 118-year home as Harry Kane slammed home a penalty kick to make it 2-0, just 74 seconds after Dele Alli had made it 1-0 in the 55th minute.

Tottenham’s fans, players and manager will miss their atmospheric home but Spurs have bigger plans. They include usurping Arsenal each season but also 18 other teams in the Premier League.

“I am happy because when you play a derby like Tottenham against Arsenal, it is always important to win,” Pochettino said. “But I have a massive respect for him (Wenger). I admire him, for what he has doing in a club like Arsenal. It is a fantastic job. Of course I am so happy but are challenge and our aim is to win. Not only to beat Arsenal. It is to win against 19 other teams that play against us in the Premier League. But of course I am very happy but I am calm because we have four games left. Now it is important to focus and reduce the gap.”

Ironic chants of “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay!” were belted out by Tottenham’s fans as they made it clear how they felt about the Arsenal boss staying on beyond this season.

Speaking after the game, Arsene Wenger was downbeat as his team would finish below Spurs for the first time in his tenure at the club.

Arsenal sit six points off the top four with five games remaining (they do have a game in hand over their rivals) as the possibility of the Gunners finishing outside the top four for the first time in 21 years is very real. That fact coupled with Spurs’ rise makes it even tougher for Arsenal to accept.

“Look, do I believe or not, the gap is there,” Wenger said. “That is often in the final part of the season, that can go one way or the other without really reflecting the difference between the teams.”

There is an incredible gap developing — 17 points to be exact — which was showcased on Sunday as Petr Cech made four fantastic saves to keep the score down. Yes, Arsenal have won PL titles, FA Cups and qualified regularly for the UEFA Champions League. But that was then. This is now.

Spurs are a club living in the moment and with a clear plan for the future. Arsenal are not.

With Spurs in the ascendancy on the pitch, their young squad improving together each month and their stunning new stadium rising higher each week, the future is bright for Tottenham.

Sunday was about soaking in nostalgia too as Pochettino waited for each and every one of his players to come off the pitch.

“We have to feel proud and happy because the last derby against Arsenal, all that it means for all our fans and everyone that loves Tottenham, it was a fantastic afternoon,” Pochettino said. “Of course we are disappointed that we didn’t reduce the gap to Chelsea but we are so proud of the team. ”

Pride is the key word in Tottenham as they’re finally top dogs in north London. Now they have bigger and better things to achieve as they leave Arsenal in their wake, the Gunners shuddering with fear and wrangled with jealousy.

Mourinho blames fatigue for Swansea collapse

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Following a 1-1 draw with Swansea City, Jose Mourinho has begged Manchester United fans to give his players their full support as they navigate a period of serious fixture congestion.

The Red Devils have gone unbeaten in a whopping 25 straight Premier League matches, but still remain outside the top four due to a plague of draws that has befallen the squad, again failing to secure a lead after a late Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick pegged them back at Old Trafford.

“Did the supporters know it [that the players are struggling]?” Mourinho said in his post-match press conference. “Because if they know it, and they think about it, they would be more supportive of the players who give everything, deserve everything and are at their limits. The team is in trouble, the boys are in trouble. But when you give everything I cannot demand more. I’m not happy with the result. I’m very happy with the boys.”

United is suffering from a host of injuries, particularly to the defense. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were both unavailable for the Swansea match Sunday, and both Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly both left the field injured during the 90 minutes

[ RECAP: Swansea City salvages 1-1 draw with Manchester United ]

“Luke has to be a big injury, when you’re out after 10 minutes, it has to be a big injury,” Mourinho said. “Eric, maybe he is injured but, at the same time, maybe it’s in relation to him being the guy who’s played 800 minutes of football in April.”

In addition, midfielders Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini were unavailable for the match, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s season is over thanks to a double ACL/PCL tear.

Mourinho went on to explain his team’s schedule in further detail, and the issues behind it. “You cannot be punished because we play the League Cup final, you play the final and then you have to play a game in midweek. Why don’t you stop the competition [the Premier League] when you play the final?

“You are punished for doing well and if we beat Celta, we have the final — in this moment that is obviously hypothetical — but the Europa League final is on the Wednesday and then we play against Crystal Palace on the Sunday. We play Southampton away two days before the final. So they want us to play the final, and we would be playing in disaster consequences.”

Matt Miazga, Vitesse win Dutch League Cup

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USMNT youngster Matt Miazga started and played the full 90 minutes as Vitesse Arnhem defeated AZ Alkmaar 2-0 to win the KNVB Beker. The trophy is the club’s first in its entire 125 year history.

Former Norwich City striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel scored the winner in the 81st minute, crashing in a header past lazy AZ defenders on a pinpoint cross by 20-year-old Kosovo international Milot Rashica. The former Premier League striker struck again in the 88th minute to put the game away.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned in the North London derby ]

Miazga has been a fixture for Vitesse this season, making 21 Eredivisie appearances this season and seeing the field in every Cup game. Vitesse conceded just four goals throughout the entire Cup run, and just one over the final four games. They shut out Feyenoord in the quarterfinals, a game which Miazga was a late substitute. Vitesse also kept clean sheets against lower league opponents in Jodan Boys in the Round of 16, and again in the finals, games that Miazga saw the entire 90 minutes.

The 21-year-old American is on loan from Chelsea, and after a slow start, has earned a significant place in the side. In the latest 10 league matches for Vitesse, Miazga has played the full 90 minutes in eight of them, with five wins and two clean sheets in that span. Vitesse sits in ninth position in the Eredivisie table, but their problems have come more so up front, as they’ve conceded just 38 goals in 34 matches, better than all but the top two teams in the table.

Another Chelsea loanee, central midfielder Lewis Baker, finished the competition as its top scorer, bagging five goals in Cup games. The 22-year-old England youth international had a brace in the 2-1 semifinal win over Sparta Rotterdam. Chelsea is known for its loan relationship with Vitesse, with four players currently loaned to the Dutch club.