Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"All we are saying is give pace a chance..."

“We failed to slow them down.”
Perhaps it was just the customary sombre tone – and slumping head – that made Marcelo Bielsa’s resigned post-match verdict sound so sad, as if he was announcing the end of the world rather than Chile’s World Cup.
Yet there was something both poignant in his distress, and yet admirable in the reminder his words gave of Brazil’s thrilling pace in attack – and Chile’s valiant attempts to fight back.
Even when 3-0 down, an unfortunately emphatic scoreline, Bielsa’s now widely-admired team kept pressing, kept passing, kept trying to keep Brazil pinned back without sacrificing their own commitment to open spaces and fluid movement.
Quality tells in the end too, of course – meaning Brazil could not only ultimately overpower their willing opponents, but also counter-attack with more devastating effect than Portugal could manage 24 hours on.
Like their brothers-in-language, Portugal were set up against Spain to absorb pressure and hit back on the break.
But unlike Dunga’s men, Portugal lacked – as, seemingly, ever – a lethal finisher after the fashion of Luis Fabiano, or playmakers accelerating quite like Kaka or Robinho.
While Chile – as against Spain – hurtled forward from kick-off in high-energy style, they were a little too fuzzy up-front with enganche Jean Beausejour less menacing than he might have been on the wing – or Valdivia or Fernandez might have been in his place.
Humberto Suazo almost tried to do too much, proving somehow too elusive, as he flitted from tip of attack to deep in midfield – and claiming almost every set-piece for himself.
Yet they remained attractive to watch as ever, even after being undone by a quickfire brace – Juan’s basic pummelling header from a basic lofted corner, then a treat of technique linking Robinho, Kaka and scorer Fabiano.
Brazil’s third goal, while harsh, was another one whisked out of the (yellow-and-)blue, created by a driving-running Ramires and swept home by Santos homeboy, the rejuvenated Robinho.
Dunga, talking a surprisingly patient and informative game afterwards, suggested Robinho was now combining both tactical nous – and free-spirited fulfilment.
‘Robinho’s played in varied positions and he asked me, “What is my function?”
‘I asked if he didn’t feel a bit constrained with his positioning. He said, “No, I just want to play and I just want to score.”’
The man who once boasted of ‘no more joga bonito’ is placing trust in his players to at least make their own minds up, though evidently with instructions when it comes to defending – seven men, at least, back when conceding possession – and other (almost-paradoxical) commands to be flexible.
‘My players have the liberty to play,’ he insists.
‘I try to give them advice, to guide them to have the best performance. So we know when the midfield is very closed, we try to go down the flanks, for example.
‘We’re fortunate enough to have players who can play in different positions. Robinho can exchange positions with Kaka, for example.
‘Kaka moved more down the wings and Robinho’s positioning confused the Chilean defence a little bit and this allowed us to score.’
Very big on giving a ‘for example’ each time, perhaps this is Dunga the pragmatist, Dunga the empiricist.
But as Woody Allen’s new film suggests, Whatever Works, and so far the Brazilian approach does, and with slightly more dazzle than the Dunga reputation going before him.
They’ve certainly offered a little more excitement than a Dutch team that really is grinding out results, though always with the promise of more expansiveness ahead – whenever they want, whenever they need.
A third World Cup meeting with Brazil since 1994 this Friday will surely have to enliven them, especially in revenge for those two previous defeats.
Spain, of course, should have a much smoother task ahead when facing Paraguay on Sunday, especially after Gerardo Martino’s men barely squeezed past Japan.
Their penalty shoot-out in Pretoria was of a much higher quality than the 120 minutes preceding, both teams looking understandably cautious as each teetered on the brink of a first ever last-eight place.
Yet Spain too still looked to be playing a little within themselves, in inching past Iberian rivals Portugal thanks to another David Villa goal.
The fact he fluffed the first shot before sweeping in the rebound with his other foot might detract slightly from the majesty of the winner, though yet again it was his new Barca team-mate Andres Iniesta providing an assist with utmost precision.
In fact, the (eventual) finish only emphasised what an inexorable goalscorer Villa is – his seventh in seven World Cup appearances suggested even when he does miss, he still scores merely a split-second later.
The breakthrough goal came just minutes after Fernando Torres was withdrawn, having looked – if anything – even more lumpen than ever. If he’s the Spanish Emile Heskey – ideally, creating the space allowing Villa to flourish – then tonight he proved as irrelevant as the actual Heskey is to the other Villa.
More encouraging signs were there, including another rampant display by Sergio Ramos – one of the few who were relatively subdued at Euro 2008, but here in South Africa storming down the right without looking too much of a liability behind.
Rumours suggest Jose Mourinho intends to shift him back into the middle of the backline at Real Madrid, but even ‘The Special One’ might struggle to restrain him entirely.
Despite all Spain’s possession, Portugal did manage to stymie them for more than an hour – and not only thanks to some robust and well-timed heroics from Braga goalkeeper Eduardo.
The Portuguese even managed to create the most clear-cut – if opportunistic – chances in the first half, only to be let down as ever by their substandard striking. Echoes of Pauleta – at tournaments, anyway – all over again.
And a subdued – and, later, sullen – Ronaldo certainly didn’t help, either the team he was supposedly captaining or those sportswear executives spooked by an alleged ‘Nike curse’.
A shamelessly blame-shifting Ronaldo suggested after the game, perhaps having received tuition at Patrice Evra’s captaincy academy: ‘Blame Queiroz.’
But his peripheral performances, both in qualifying and on the South African stage, will reasonably see questions asked of by far the world’s most expensive player.
As one of his Nike pals might put it instead – all together, one two three: ‘D’oh!’

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