Football

International football: Five things we learned this week

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Cristiano Ronaldo & Hugo Almeida (©GettyImages)
Cristiano Ronaldo & Hugo Almeida (©GettyImages).

The final World Cup qualification matches were played last night with the final slots sealed for the global showpiece in Rio next year.

France produced a historic turnaround to beat Ukraine, Portugal drew on an inspired Cristiano Ronaldo to power past Sweden, while Greece and Croatia also made it through.

England and Spain also lost in friendly matches, the former failing to get the better of their old foes Germany again while the latter slumped to a shock 1-0 loss in Johannesburg against South Africa.

England's conquerors Chile also lost to Brazil 2-1 while the Netherlands played out a dire 0-0 draw against Colombia.

Here are a few things we learn from the mid-week matches.

1. Cristiano Ronaldo deserves the Ballon d’Or

It was billed as the battle of the egos, clash of the titans perhaps, while some even went on to throw some satire and describe it as the war of the hair-gels.

Cristiano Ronaldo faced up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a place in Rio. As it turned out, it could as well have been Cristiano versus the entire world and he still would have won. He was just that good, as he has been for much of the year.

Portugal are going to Brazil with a banner describing them as a one-man army but when that one man performs like that, who cares?

Cristiano Ronaldo was absolutely phenomenal at the Friends Arena on Tuesday and you can bet your kids that some Sweden fans, at some point, wished it was he who was on their side (with all due respect to their own hero Ibrahimovic). Again, he was just that good.

Ibra did play his part in the contest though, his brace briefly putting his country ahead after CR7’s 50th minute strike. After Ronaldo raced through to put Portugal in the lead and double their aggregate, Zlatan nodded in a corner and then smashed home emphatically from a free-kick.

Portugal, at that point, were rocking and the Ibrahimovic tide threatened to sink their ship. Yet Ronaldo was not about to let his countrymen become the latest footballing Titanic.

He grabbed a second strike from Almeida’s pass and left Sweden needing two more goals. That was not enough, he was just not done. Perhaps buoyed by his missed opportunities in the first half, CR7 demanded the ball every time his midfielders had it and broke through after Moutinho’s sumptuous slide-rule pass slit Sweden’s defence.

He still had a lot to do but this is what he lives for as he rounded Isaakson for his hat-trick. It was done. It is his time, and nobody can doubt it now, not even Ibrahimovic.

66 goals in 2013, with one of the best hat-tricks you will ever get to see, delivered on one of the biggest nights in Portuguese football history (tying him up with Pauleta on Portugal’s all-time list with 47 strikes), go some way towards summing up just how his year has been.

When his nation needed a big performance, from a big-game player with a big-game attitude, the biggest one of them all stepped up. CR7… Brazil and the Ballon d’Or await.

2. England still light-years behind World Cup favourites

The Three Lions slumped to another defeat against old foes Germany at Wembley, again, courtesy of a Per Mertesacker header and have now lost back to back games at the famous stadium for the first time since 1977.

Despite both sides having fielded much-changed sides, England still looked ultimately toothless against a mostly second string Die Mannschaft side and by the end of the match, had the recently maligned Joe Hart to thank for keeping the scoreline respectable.

The did have some bright moments of their own, Andros Townsend once again laying a claim for a regular starting berth when he went closest to scoring but his rasping drive rebounded off the post.

That was the best England could muster in 90 minutes and this statistic, against a weakened Germany side, goes to show just how far behind they are the leading pack ahead of the World Cup.

Wayne Rooney was anonymous, Gerrard fleeted in and out of the match despite his 30 yard
screamer that went inches wide, while Joe Hart still looks wobbly after another ill-advised dash resulted in him clattering into Smalling.

Roy Hodgson admitted his side are short of quality and on the evidence of the last two matches, England, unseeded, already look likely to have a difficult time in Rio.

3. Spain may struggle at World Cup

Spain landed in South Africa amid feelings of nostalgia in the land where they won their first World Cup three years ago on the way towards cementing their status as heavyweights in the global footballing ring.

You could see smiles as soon as they emerged from the plane into the team bus and even when they arrived at the Stadium as that warm fuzzy feeling kicked in.

After 90 minutes though, the feel-good was replaced by shock and self-reflection. Reality had checked in.

A cool clipped finish from Parker rounded off a swift team move gave the hosts a deserving lead in the 56th minute and Spain failed to find a way back into the match after. La Furia Roja were disjointed and un-enterprising.

Granted this was a much changed side but still, they surely had enough in them to produce a better display. They did have opportunities, David Villa had two goals correctly flagged offside, but these were few and far between and after their wholly unconvincing 2-1 win over Equatorial Guinea on Friday, such footballing minnows, Vicente Del Bosque has a lot to do before his side can dream of defending their title.

Their tiki-taka style of play is beginning to be found out each time they step onto the field and their reliance on Iniesta, Xavi and Alonso, three thirty-somethings who are not- so -slowly getting past their prime, may prove to be their Achilles heel.

Spain’s wake up call has been served.

4. France need more performances like this

The stage was set. The Stade de France, a venue that played host to France’s most iconic moment in their footballing history way back in 1998. Their current manager was captain then, leading a talented but unproven group of players to a fantastic and nation pulling 3-0 final win over a much-fancied Brazil side.

This time, however, the stakes were a bit more modest, but not less important. France faced the ignominy of being knocked out by a less illustrious Ukraine in the play-offs and needed to evoke the spirit of 1998 to re-write history by overturning a 2-0 first leg defeat. 90 minutes later, it was 1998 all over again, without the trophy of course.

France produced their best performance since June of 2006 when they beat Brazil, again, in the World Cup in Germany. This has always been a talented group, undoubtedly, but that massive potential has always been stifled by a lack of effort, teamwork and togetherness.

Against Ukraine, however, everyone stepped up and turned in a performance, everyone, and this is what has been missing from the French camp for way too long.

From the now infamous 2010 camp walkout in South Africa to Samir Nasri’s foul-mouthed tirade at a French journalist in last-year’s Euros, France have been their own worst enemy in recent times.

The spoil-boys image took root but last night, all that was gone. The fans rallied behind their team from kick-off and the team responded. Les Bleus were back.

Didier Deschamps had called on his team to step up and show up. Olivier Giroud had issued a rallying cry of his own, saying he and his teammates were ready to die on the field for a ticket to Brazil.

They did not have to die to achieve it but they definitely had to play as a team and not as a bunch of talented but largely dis-interested individuals.

Paris livened up for once in a long time and as the head to Brazil, France must now kick on from this, put the recent past behind them and keep the spirit of 1998 going. Maybe, just maybe, they may have their own spirit of 2014 by the end of it all.

5. Brazil are odds on favourites

After their scintillating attacking display against Honduras on Saturday, Brazil produced another electric performance in their 2-1 win over a tricky Chile in Canada.

The World Cup hosts extended their unbeaten run over Chile to 12 games, a run that dates back to 2000. The Seleccao underlined their credentials once again with a brilliant display against a Chile side that had been troublesome of late and had left England reeling with a 2-0 win on Friday at Wembley.

There wasn’t going to be a repeat of that however against Brazil who had the Chileans on the back foot from the first whistle. Hulk gave them the lead on 14 minutes after a sloppy pass from Gonzalez was picked up by Oscar who played in Hulk to fire home.

Neymar, Paulinho and Robinho all threatened before Chile drew level through a brilliant Vargas strike. Two minutes later though and Neymar had the ball in the back of the net only for Chile to be let off the hook by the linesman’s flag.

They were not to be denied a second time though when once again, the brilliant Neymar, seemingly unfazed by the rather too hands-on approach to Honduran hospitality a few days earlier, went on a dazzling run, fed Maicon ,who then found an unmarked Robinho to nod home.

Neymar almost made it three but his effort was saved by Bravo. Robinho continued his renaissance ai the yellow of Brazil as Scolari looks to revive his career. Neymar, Oscar and Hulk were excellent and the back four did well to muffle dangerman Alexis for most of the match.

The Samba boys are beginning to find their groove just at the right moment and are more and more looking like serious favourites for the crown.

Big Phil has brought back the feel good factor and a happy Brazil, as we all know, normally ends up being a winning Brazil. The countdown to Rio begins.


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