Saturday 16 December 2017

No room for romance in World Cup

Experienced big guns dominate with a ruthless edge

WE'VE had the romance, tales of the unexpected and a World Cup to stir the soul so far, but now it's time for the tournament professionals to take over.

This isn't the first World Cup in which smaller nations have made big waves and no matter how many World Cups roll by or how big the shock results, the same suspects always end up in the semi-finals.

This time it's Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Holland, old lags when it comes to this stage of the competition and all teams that know how to win big games. That's what this is about now - ruthless big teams in big games with an awful lot to lose and, unfortunately, that means that the football will suffer.

The open and exciting matches from the group phase have been replaced by cagey games of chess and a greater focus on the physical intimidation of mentally weaker teams.

Like it or not and let's be honest, most of us don't, Per Mertesecker was right last week when he told Germans fans that they could have winning football or entertaining football but not both.

That's why we saw Brazil ruthlessly chop James Rodriguez out of the game the other night. That was the game plan given to them by Phil Scolari and it was disgraceful. But it was also effective and there lies the paradox.

Those who remember the great days when Brazil won because they had the best players in the world and let them play know that it is a long, long time since the Samba Kings played with such freedom.

They changed course in the early '80s and ditched the traditional attacking mentality for something much more negative and we can see the result of that in this team. Without Neymar, they have nothing but home advantage and a bunch of pretty ordinary players.

That has got them to the semi-finals but I don't think it will get them any further. Germany know how to win football matches ugly as well and they've got more quality.

It is ironic that the some of the most cynical football we've seen in Brazil has come from the game's biggest powers.


Teams like Colombia, Costa Rica, Algeria and even Belgium came to this World Cup full of hope and optimism and their naivety and honesty delighted everyone.

But the big football nations have decades of achievement to lean on and arrive with a completely different mindset. They are trying to win the tournament and cut their cloth to suit. That's why we watched a deeply cynical approach from Brazil, Holland, Germany and Argentina at different times during this tournament, but they are all still in the competition. As Mertesecker said, do you want to go home or stay in the game?

Players who have had successful careers at club level understand that this ruthlessness is a fundamental of winning and all four semi-finalists are packed with men who have won big trophies.

I know people sometimes find it odd when the lads on the RTE panel seem to celebrate the kind of physical pragmatism shown by the Dutch, for instance, against Spain when they booted them off the ball, won the fight and then won the match at a canter.

It is hard to square the 'Beautiful' Game with the kind of crass stuff we saw from Brazil against Colombia and let's be honest, it was difficult to watch.

But this is all about winning. I'm sure the record books record how many fouls there were in the final but the fans of the winning team don't care about that, and why should they?

As I said above, I don't think Brazil will be able to find a way through Germany and I expect my original tip Argentina to meet them in the final.

I know Louis van Gaal is the best manager in the tournament and that Holland have managed their World Cup exceptionally well so far but I saw signs in Argentina against Belgium that they are getting stronger.

Van Gaal is having some World Cup and after watching him mastermind Holland's penalty-shoot out win over Costa Rica, it seems as if he is being guided by the hand of Fate. Everything he tries seems to work and if anyone ever doubted how important a manager is at this level, van Gaal is giving a master class.

But I'm more concerned about Angel Di Maria and his injury than van Gaal's ability to manage or otherwise. I still fancy Argentina, mainly because they still have the best player in the tournament by far - Lionel Messi.

No player alive today knows more about winning than he does and I have a feeling that when it comes down to it, he will be the man to eclipse everyone else before this is all over in a week's time.

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