Three things we learned from Netherlands-Argentina

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After going scoreless across 90 minutes plus 30 minutes of extra time, Argentina will be joining Germany in the 2014 World Cup final after winning on penalties, 4-2.

It was hardly a classic but the match did provide a number of talking points.

Here are the three biggest ones, as we had them.

Is Louis van Gaal the Dutch Jose Mourinho? 

If we’re kind, we’ll call it practical. Or pragmatic. If we’re realistic, it was anti-football in it’s purest sense, dropping 10 men behind the ball to prevent Argentina from generating any sort of rhythm. How audacious of Louis van Gaal, forcing Robin van Persie to defend like that! But he did and perhaps it’s something that we should’ve seen coming, a ramped-up version of his side’s tactics against Costa Rica.

But why? Why force the ‘total football’ Dutch into such a putrid style?

Because with the exception of Wesley Sneijder, Holland’s starting midfield lacked the technical ability to play quality football. Georgino Wijnaldum? An outside player too often caught in the middle. Nigel de Jong? He simply lacks the wherewithal to possess around the Lucas Biglia’s and Javier Mascherano’s of the world. For 61 minutes, it was brutal to watch and, dare we say, a bit reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s tactics at Chelsea.

But then something changed – Jordy Claise came on for De Jong and suddenly the skies opened up. Was this Van Gaal’s plan? To defend for 60 minutes, tire out the Argentine’s and then use Claise’s skill to possess the ball, spread the field and try a new approach? If so it seemed to be working because with De Jong off the pitch, the Dutch looked much more like the Dutch. And that’s a huge plus for Manchester United fans.

Lionel Messi slept through prom night

It was set up to be a career defining match for Lionel Messi. If he could compel his side through this match the one trophy that has thus-far evaded him would be at his feet: the World Cup. Holland’s tactics didn’t make things easy on him, especially Van Gaal’s decision to start De Jong, but even with things packed tight Messi didn’t demand enough of the ball. Too often he was seen standing on defenders, comfortable knowing that his mere presence in taking them away from teammates was doing enough. But it wasn’t.

Argentina needed more out of Messi, they needed a hero to step forward. In the first half a few tough but legal tackles had him looking frustrated and his only chance – a free-kick from 20 yards out – was put directly into the hands of the Dutch keeper. He wasn’t finding any space through the middle so in the second half he went wide only to once again find slim pickings. Despite what the announcers said, Messi did not provide Higuain with the service that saw him nearly score (that was Enzo Perez) although he did slip a probing ball to Sergio Aguero, who was in on goal but had his shot blocked. In extra-time he popped up once, crossing the ball to Maxi Rodriguez who’s shot was handled easily by Cillessen.

Yes, he did well to score his penalty. But on what should’ve been the biggest night of his career, Messi went missing.

With offense on ice, Javier Mascherano and Ron Vlaar were absolute monsters

For as drab a match as it was both defenses were incredible and in particular, Javier Mascherano and Ron Vlaar. Both are players of decent notoriety, the former more so than the latter, but this night each enjoyed the best match of his career. Mascherano was everywhere, an endless tank of energy, helping settle his side into possession moving forward and getting back to make some crucial tackles, a number of which were on the slippery Robben. Vlaar held the back line like a tugboat anchor, keeping fellow center-backs in shape and making a number of brilliant diving slide tackles on Lionel Messi. Yes, the Villa man missed his penalty but what was Van Gaal thinking having a defender lead the kicks in the first place?

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Fekir negotiations back on; Chelsea waiting on transfer targets; and more

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Could Liverpool get its star attacking midfield target after all?

That’s what seems to be the case, as the agent for Lyon and France midfielder Nabil Fekir told French TV channel LCI Monday evening that negotiations aren’t over between Liverpool and Lyon.

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“He didn’t sign because um… it is not over! This is not the end of the story,” Fekir’s agent, Jean-Pierre Bernes reportedly said.

It was just two weeks ago when Lyon president Jean-Michael Aulas stated that Fekir, Lyon’s captain, would remain with the club for the upcoming season, after negotiations with Liverpool fell through. According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds wanted a second opinion on a previous knee injury, and had balked at the $70 million price tag.

But now it appears Liverpool and Aulas could still be in conversations to try and find a mutually accepted fee.

At the same time, stirring up transfer drama is in Bernes interest, as it could drive other teams into the race to sign Fekir and raise his transfer fee, meaning more money to him, Fekir (if he gets a cut) and Lyon. Watch this space for more to come during and after the World Cup.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from across the Premier League and Europe:

(more…)

Japan upsets ten-man Colombia in Group H opener

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On paper, the 61st-ranked team in the world beating the 16th-ranked team in the world is a massive upset. But considering the circumstances within the game, perhaps this wasn’t an upset after all.

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Two set pieces were the difference as Japan defeated ten-man Colombia, 2-1 on Tuesday morning in Saransk. Colombia played with ten men for nearly the entire match, after Carlos Sanchez was sent off for a handball in the box and a denial of a goal scoring opportunity.

The game took a massive turn in the third minute, as Colombia centerback Davinson Sanchez failed to control a pass and Yuya Osako found himself free on goal. His shot was parried away by Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina but Kagawa’s rebound shot was clearly blocked by Sanchez’s right arm. The referee, Damir Skomina immediately pointed to the penalty spot and went to the back pocket, sending Sanchez to the showers.

Kagawa stepped up and cooly sent Ospina the wrong way to put Japan on top.

Late in the first half, after both teams had chances on target, Colombia came back and evened the scoreline.

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Juan Fernando Quintero, starting in place of the recovering James Rodriguez, smartly took a free kick and fired it low, under the wall as it jumped. Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacted late and although he arrived as the ball was crossing the line, he couldn’t keep it from going over, tying the game in the 39th minute.

Ultimately, despite its efforts, Colombia began to tire and on a corner kick, the Blue Samurai took back the lead and control of their destiny in Group H. A corner kick from Keisuke Honda was re-directed past Ospina by Osako, who jumped well over Santiago Arias, to give Japan a 2-1 lead in the 75th minute.

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Rodriguez was introduced in the 57th minute but try as he did, Colombia was unable to find the final pass in the box, and Japan held on for the unexpected victory.

With the win, Japan top Group H ahead of a meeting with Senegal, while Colombia will have to regroup to face Poland.

In a World Cup full of unexpected results, Tuesday brought yet another memorable win for an underdog.

New Zealand women footballers rebel against national coach

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Wellington, New Zealand (AP) Only weeks after New Zealand Football made headlines by signing a revolutionary equal pay deal with its female players, the organization is facing a mutiny by members of its women’s team against the national coach.

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New Zealand Football confirmed on Tuesday it had received a letter signed by a number of New Zealand players complaining about the methods and tactics employed by Austria-born coach Andreas Heraf.

The complaints follow the New Zealand team’s recent 3-1 loss at home to Japan. Heraf angered his players, and fans of the Football Ferns national team, by taking an entirely defensive game plan into the rare home international.

Heraf then further angered his players with comments defending his approach.

He said there was “a big difference in quality” between the New Zealand and Japanese players and that New Zealand “will never have that quality” to compete with top teams like Japan. He said the scoreline might have been 8-0 if New Zealand had not adopted a defensive approach.

One of New Zealand’s leading players, United States-based Abby Erceg, retired after playing 132 matches for New Zealand, citing Heraf’s approach in previous international matches.

She later told New Zealand media: “I couldn’t stand to wear that (national symbol) on my chest any more when his vision was to cower in a corner and not get beat by too much.”

New Zealand Football defended Heraf against the media and public criticism but admitted his comments were “strange” and “wrong” and did not accurately reflect his views. Heraf later apologized and said he had not expressed himself clearly.

But efforts to dampen the controversy have failed. New Zealand Football said in a statement it had “received a letter from the NZ Professional Footballers Association (NZPFA) last night with a number of complaints from the players of the Football Ferns.”

The mutiny comes only weeks after New Zealand gained international headlines for a deal which gives female pay parity with their male counterparts.

New Zealand Football signed the deal which provided female players with equal match payments, travel arrangements and prize money.

At the time, New Zealand women’s captain Ali Riley said the deal meant New Zealand would “be able to compete against the top teams, to be able to do well at a World Cup and the Olympics – this is what we needed.”

VIDEO: Colombia sees red, Japan takes early lead

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The first red card of the World Cup came just moments after fans took their seats in Saransk.

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After David Ospina blocked a breakaway opportunity from Yuya Osako in the third minute of the match, Japan star and former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa fired the rebound on goal. But his shot was blocked by the arm of Colombia midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which earned him a straight red card from referee Damir Skomina and an early trip to the locker room.

Kagawa then stepped up to the spot and calmly sent Ospina the wrong way to give Japan the shock early lead.

Colombia will play the rest of the match with ten men and no James Rodriguez, who was named to the bench for this match as he recovers from a reported calf injury.