Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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The Best Morning of the Year

Today is my favorite sports morning of the year. It’s the Wimbledon Men’s Final. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. It doesn’t get much better than this. I’ll admit, I’ve hardly watched any tennis at all in the last two weeks due to work and the World Cup, but I wouldn’t miss this match for anything. I’ve been a big fan of Djokovic for a very long time, and in 2011, at the U.S. Open Semifinal between these two that I was lucky enough to attend, I was part of an extreme minority at Arthur Ashe Stadium that day who were cheering for the Serbian against Federer.

But it will be hard to root against Roger today. The greatest tennis player ever deserves another title, and getting it at Wimbledon would be the crowning achievement for his incredible career. He is the epitome of class. And it’s impossible to root against the classiest individual in all of sports.

It’s amazing that these two have only met once at a Grand Slam Final – back in 2007 no less. Their rivalry has been a great one in recent years though, with the match that I saw at the U.S. Open in 2011 being a particularly testy affair. If you recall, Djokovic was down two sets in that match and clawed his way back, before going down two match points in the fifth. He swung as hard as he could on a return on one of Federer’s two match points – essentially giving up. However, the shot miraculously went in, and Djokovic pulled out the victory. That swing in the match turnaround is one of my favorite sports moments I have witnessed.

So I’m really not sure whom I’ll be rooting for this morning. I’ll just sit back and enjoy watching two of the best tennis players I’ll ever see in what could be their final Grand Slam Final against one another. The Federer era is rapidly coming to an end, so we all better appreciate every last second of it while we can. Whatever the outcome, I’ll be happy.

Going back to soccer – I wasn’t able to share any of my thoughts on the Costa Rica-Netherlands game yesterday, but overall, I thought the Dutch got a deserved victory. They dominated from the start and had a stellar display in penalty kicks, The Ticos were clearly worn out from their 120 minute match against Greece, and they weren’t able to create much going forward. Joel Campbell in particular looked exhausted, and that is a bit worrying. In an era where Arsenal play twice a week for much of the year, Campbell’s fitness will need to improve if he hopes to earn a spot in the starting lineup. At this point, I don’t see him being much more than a Capital One Cup participant this year, but he should be given the chance to prove he belongs nonetheless.

On another note, Tim Krul sure made Louis van Gaal look smart. That has to be the first tactical goalkeeping substitution I’ve seen. And Krul made two fantastic saves in penalties to justify it. However, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t enjoy penalty kicks. It was heartbreaking to see Costa Rica lose in that fashion after battling so hard for three weeks. The Ticos represented CONCACAF admirably, and they have proven themselves a top-class international side. The 2014 World Cup won’t soon be forgotten in Costa Rica.

I’ll have more on the semifinals in the coming days, but they should be fascinating. It goes to show that ultimately, talent wins out in the end at the World Cup. Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Netherlands are four of the best footballing nations, and it is fitting that they should be in the semis. We’re in for a treat in the final week, even without Neymar.

Lastly, I want to thank How I Met Your Mother creator Craig Thomas for telling me on Twitter yesterday that he enjoyed my HIMYM post and thought my interpretation was good. He didn’t need to say anything in response to my tweet, but he did anyway. I’ll never forget that act of kindness. It means the world to me that he said that, and I guess that now signals that I have found closure with the show. It’ll forever be my favorite.

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Argentina State Their Case

Argentina proved they are more than just Lionel Messi in their 1-0 quarterfinal win over Belgium today, with a number of players impressing on the day. Belgium once again looked lost in its own system, with so many talented individuals playing like only a fraction of their normal selves.

Gonzalo Higuain may often get overlooked in the grander scheme of things, but he may be almost as crucial to Argentina’s World Cup campaign as Messi himself. Higuain played his best game of the tournament today, opening up with a brilliantly taken volley past Thibaut Courtois to give Argentina the lead. From there, his play only got better. He was a menace on the ball, dropping deeper than normal to pick up the ball when his team earned possession. His hold-up play was among the best seen in Brazil, as his ability to keep the ball under fierce pressure allowed his midfielders time to get forward. Holding off Vincent Kompany is always a big ask for a forward, but Higuain had little trouble today. His nutmeg of Kompany on a solo run that ended with a well-struck shot hitting the crossbar typified the performance.

When Angel di Maria went down with a thigh injury, Argentina’s approach understandably became more patient. But even without di Maria’s pacey runs, Messi and company still found success out wide. Ezequiel Lavezzi put in an impressive shift defensively, but he also made a number of runs out wide that nearly resulted in goals. With di Maria likely out of the semifinal, Lavezzi will be called upon to deliver another performance like his one today. And in midfield and defense, Alejandro Sabella’s changes in the lineup looked genius. Lucas Biglia had a solid performance in the middle of the park, certainly appearing up to the task. And in defense, Martin Demichelis hardly put a foot wrong. Especially late on when Belgium started sending in long-balls, Demichelis’s physicality proved vital for Argentina.

While Belgium might be satisfied with their quarterfinal appearance in their first World Cup since 2002, they never lived up to their potential. Much like they had all tournament, they lacked creativity in the final third today. Star player Eden Hazard was rightly substituted late on, because he had not looked even a shadow of himself. As one of the Premier League’s best players, Hazard could have stolen the show in Brazil, but instead, he barely made an impact. He’s got a long shelf life in international soccer, but his poor performances here won’t enhance his reputation. With Cesc Fabregas coming in at Chelsea, Hazard might be at risk of getting dropped if his play doesn’t pick up in pre-season.

Marc Wilmots’s Belgian side had more talent on the field today than Argentina did among all 11 players. But Belgium did not have a single player step up. They were wasteful all day on set pieces, and with Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini all capable of changing a match with their heads, the consistently poor delivery did themselves no favors. In two years time, after this young side has had more time on the training ground together, they should be a favorite at the European Championships. But today, they were not cut out for the biggest stage.

Messi had a good game in possession, once again looking a magician with the ball at his feet, but he will be disappointed not to have beaten his nemesis Courtois at the end of the game. One has to feel Messi won’t miss many more chances like that in Brazil. But overall, he will be delighted with the performance of his teammates. Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Mascherano are all more than capable of stepping up beside Messi to lead this team to the title. And they showed it today.


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Thiago Silva’s Lookalike and Today’s Picks

Good morning, everyone. I hope you all survived any 4th of July festivities. One random thought before I move to my predictions for today’s games. For a while now, I’ve looked at Thiago Silva and thought he looked familiar. But I couldn’t ever place it. That is, until yesterday, when I figured it out – he looks like the lead male actor from The Fault in Our Stars, Ansel Elgort. Obviously, the two of them have drastically different skin tones, but the shape of their faces and certain facial features look rather similar. Google just told me I am not the very first to make this connection, but I doubt too many people have put Silva and Elgort together in their minds. Somehow I think there aren’t many Brazilian soccer aficionados out there who also are fans of The Fault in Our Stars.

Now, to the picks.

Argentina 2 Belgium 1

Despite all the offensive firepower on the field, this game could be a dull one at times. These two teams have underwhelmed on their ways to the quarterfinals, lacking much of the flare they possessed in qualifying. For Argentina, it will be vital for Angel di Maria to be at his best on the left wing. Belgium’s fullbacks, especially Toby Alderweireld, will be the weak links that Argentina can attack. Pacey runs from di Maria could see Argentina run away with the game. For Belgium, I expect Romelu Lukaku to reclaim his starting spot. His ability to link up with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne could cause nightmares for the Argentine defense. Thibaut Courtois will be counted on in the Belgian net more than in any game prior.

I expect the game to start slowly, with any chances in the opening half an hour coming from defensive mistakes rather than any particularly impressive attacks. One such chance will fall to Hazard, who will open his World Cup scoring account and give Belgium the early lead. At halftime, Argentina will change things up tactically to get Lionel Messi more involved. However, Argentina’s equalizer will come from Pablo Zabaleta, played in by di Maria. Minutes later, Messi will give his country the lead from a brilliantly played one-two with Ezequiel Lavezzi. It will be a vintage effort from the world’s best player that sends Argentina to the semifinals.

Netherlands 2 Costa Rica 0

As much as I would like to see Costa Rica pull off the unthinkable and reach the semifinals, they’ll have to play an almost perfect game to beat the in-form Dutch. Thus far, Costa Rica hasn’t had to deal with many lightning quick forwards, which has allowed them to gamble on the counter. But if they do that today, their backline will be left on an island trying to defend Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. The Dutch will punish any mistake, and unfortunately, I don’t think Costa Rica will be play mistake-free.

I predict Costa Rica will be the team attacking with the most vigor in the early going, trying to send a message that they’re here to play with the big boys. But roughly a quarter of an hour in, Arjen Robben will get the game’s first real chance. Afraid of giving away the penalty, Costa Rica will allow Robben the extra inch of space he needs, and the Bayern Munich man will fire the ball into the back of the net, beating Keylor Navas near-post. The goal against the run of play will knock some of the wind out of the Ticos sails. Before halftime, the Dutch will double their lead, with Ron Vlaar rising highest to head in a corner. In the second half, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz will combine well to create a couple of chances, but Jasper Cillessen will prove up to the task in goal. The latter stages of the game will be fairly comfortably for the Dutch, who will advance to the semifinals with relative ease.

What are your thoughts on today’s games? And do you see the Thiago Silva-Ansel Elgort connection or am I crazy? Please comment below.


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How Neymar’s Devastating Injury Could Have Been Prevented

Brazil may have won today against Colombia, but they suffered two huge losses in the process. The first, a ridiculously stupid yellow card by Thiago Silva, knocked the captain out of the semifinal with Germany due to a suspension. The second though, announced by a team doctor after the game, is even more devastating. Neymar, the face of the World Cup, has broken a vertebra, ruling him out for the rest of the tournament.

Brazil now faces the harsh reality of a semifinal against Germany without its two most important players. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will have to be at his best this week getting his other players mentally ready for playing without their superstar, as the Neymar injury will come as an equal blow to the psyche of both the team and the fans. The poster child won’t be there to save them any longer. Players like Hulk, Fred and Oscar will need to be step up their games three or four notches.

Neymar has always been a fragile player on the field, one who was easy to knock around due to his slight build. Teams everywhere would try to stop him by clipping his heels and going body-to-body, hoping he would begin to shy away from contact. The one time I have seen Neymar play in person – the Gold Medal match in London in 2012, when Mexico beat Brazil 2-1 – it was clear that any time Neymar touched the ball, a Mexican was headed straight for his body. He hit the ground time after time. And since then, that’s become the prevalent strategy for defending the young Brazilian.

I believe it is the referee’s duty to protect the players. I’m not advocating for protecting the stars. I’m advocating for protecting players in general. If a team’s strategy involves consistently knocking a player to the ground, that team’s players should be reprimanded. Yellow cards must be shown to discourage the continued use of that tactic. For the most part in this World Cup, referees haven’t gone out of their way to protect Neymar. You might say he rolls around on the ground too often, but there’s a reason he’s always on the ground and it’s not flopping. He gets hit. And the referees haven’t been doing much about it.

Today, referee Carlos Velasco Carballo was determined not to show any yellow cards. As a result, the Colombians were free to play rough with Neymar. There would be no consequences it seemed. And Brazil lashed out in retaliation. The match quickly got out of hand, with fouls piling up by the minute. However, the Spanish referee did nothing. Neymar’s injury came late in the second half from a brutal challenge that had Juan Zuniga kneeing Neymar in the back. The intent was clear, but because of the way the game had been officiated, Zuniga knew there would be no consequences. “It was a typical play,” he said after the game, showing that knocking down Neymar had become the norm in that match.

When fouls pile up, yellow cards need to be handed out, regardless of the time in the game. Keeping 11 men on the field for both sides should not be a goal for the referee. He should want to control the game, keeping things clean. A yellow card for a deliberate, early tackle from Colombia could have sent a message that the referee wasn’t going to mess around today. But instead, he let everything go. That an injury resulted is no surprise, but that it happened to Neymar himself should send a message to FIFA: the referees need to focus on protecting the players on the pitch rather than protecting the cards in their pocket. No referee should be afraid of exerting control.

As big as the loss of Neymar is for Brazil, Thiago Silva’s absence could prove just as devastating. The central defender was excellent today, and showed why many consider him to be the world’s best defender. His yellow card was one you’d expect from a fifth grader, not a seasoned veteran. Stealing the ball from the goalie as he punts it has never been allowed and everyone knows that. So why do you try that in a World Cup quarterfinal with a yellow card already to your name? He deserves to miss the next match for his stupidity alone.

Brazil will now be at a severe disadvantage against Germany and frankly, I don’t think they overcome their losses. They are simply too great. It’s a sad day for soccer fans.

 


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Langweilig und Wirksam – Deutschland Geht Zum Halbfinale (Boring and Effective – Germany Goes To the Semifinals)

From the moment Jogi Löw’s teamsheet was released, it was clear Germany had a plan for overcoming their recent struggles – a return to the German side of years past was on the cards. Philipp Lahm was back in defense, and Miroslav Klose returned as the traditional center forward. Germany were done playing around, and France was going to have to beat them the hard way. By solidifying their defense and beefing up the attack, Germany looked a much more difficult side to beat.

France was unlucky to give up the opening goal on a set-piece, but particularly poor defending by the young Raphaël Varane allowed Mats Hummels a free header. It was a wonderfully taken free kick by Toni Kroos and an even better header from Hummels. With the goal, Germany could sit further back, looking to hit on the counter. They looked to play the same sort of tactics that they did in 2010 when they had so much success against England and Argentina in the knockout round.

On this day, Germany dominated in the midfield with experience winning out over youth, with France having a hard time dictating the game as a result. Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira were noticeably effective at breaking up play in the middle of the park, forcing the French to move wider. The German defense was excellent for much of the match, with Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels looking an impressive pairing in the middle. Per Mertesacker will feel unlucky to have been left out, but Löw’s choice to add a little pace in the back helped keep Karim Benzema quiet. The few times France did manage to send in a useful ball, Hummels was always there to clean things up.

Manuel Neuer had yet another standout game between the posts, cementing his stance as the best all-around keeper in the world. Once again, his shot-stopping and distribution were top class. He looks a composed figure in net, and Germany have a huge advantage with him in the side. Neuer’s confidence seems to have a way of making the rest of his team feel at ease. One has to feel that if Germany wind up in a crucial penalty shootout, Neuer immediately gives them the edge.

France seemed to lack urgency in the second half, but that’s probably more of a testament to the German defending than it is a reflection of the French players. They were never able to find much of a rhythm, and even when Loïc Rémy was introduced to infuse pace in the side, nothing much went his way. France should be disappointed with their indifferent performance today, but they should feel confident about their current state going into the  hosting duties of the 2016 European Championships. They look a team on the rise again, having gotten over the horrors of 2010.

From the Arsenal standpoint, it was frustrating to see so many players left out of these sides today. Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski deserve a run-out in the final two games for Germany. If they are going to be attacking on the counter, Podolski should be on the pitch late in games, as his finishing ability surely would have led to another goal or two today. And for France, Didier Deschamps will be left reconsidering his choice of central defenders. Laurent Koscielny was one of the very best defenders in the whole Premier League last season, and you have to wonder how he couldn’t make the starting 11 for his country. I did, however, agree with Deschamps selecting Antoine Griezmann ahead of Olivier Giroud today. As far as the one Gunner to get a start today, Mesut Özil had a slightly better game in my opinion. While he was not involved in much action, he looked dangerous on the counter attack and was unlucky not to have gotten an assist late on. He still remains a long way off from his best, but at least he made a number of decisive passes today.

I still have Germany as my favorites for the tournament, and today’s more disciplined performance will hopefully quiet some of their critics. With Manuel Neuer in net, die Mannschaft might just win this thing.