Thursday, July 06, 2006

France moves on, the Portugese face Deutschland

So I have had 24 hours to digest the France victory over Portugal, sending Les Bleus to a sunday finals show down with the Azurri.

I will provide some thoughts on the finals later but for now I need to express some thoughts on yesterday's game.

The Good:
  • France won
  • Maniche, Deco and Figo really showed me something for Portugal, although I think that Maniche would be better served shooting less from 35 yards out. Figo was solid running up both flanks. Deco demonstrated that he is a great maestro, really controlling the tempo
  • Thuram was rock solid, just like the World Cup semi finals 8 years ago he really dominated this semi final. While he did not score he was the rock that controlled the back, and thwarted numerous attacks from Portugal
  • The referee, while I was fearful that we might see a match marred in Yellow and Red Cards, the Uruguayan ref was excellent, allowing the teams to play and more importantly did not fall for all the Portugese dives.
  • Barthez, he had very little to do much of the tournament, but was called upon to step it up this game. He was solid with all the crosses the Portugese sent in, made some solid saves, and overall demonstated a calmness you need in a world cup level keeper.
  • Zidane's penalty shot: the Master once again showed why he is such a world class player. Facing Ricardo, who can obviously stop PKs, Zidane cooly slotted home the shot. Ricardo seemed to know which side Zidane would go but was powerless against a powerful, well placed strike. Maybe Lampard and Gerrard should take some lessons.
The Bad:
  • Pauleta, while he had 1 or 2 good turns, he was a complete non factor in this game. Granted he was going against Gallas and Thuram, but he really did not show anything.
  • Abidal, he has been solid on the left flank. But he had two huge concentration lapses which the French were lucky not to get penalized for. One time on a goal kick played to him he just watched it go out of bounds for a Portugese throw in, the second time on a simple square pass he seemed absent minded allowing for another dangerous Portugese throw in. He still had some solid defensive work as well as good runs on the flank, but I expect more from a player of his talent.
  • Carvalho, never been a fan of the Chelsea player. This game showed me again why, he is not good. He was beaten like a drum by Henry, before Carvalho brought him down. He then had a ridiculous foul on Wiltord. When I see how other central defenders play, then watch him, I wonder what Mourinho ever saw in him other than the portugese connection.
The Ugly:
  • Portugese diving - Gallas was a genius in calling out the portugese "tactics" to the press, the refs, the Portugese, the ball boys and girls, etc. I think that the refs were well aware of the "style" of play of Portugal and did not allow it to taint the game. But it was a little ridiculous...there was the "tumble by Postiga" when he ran into Gallas but decided that it was clear that Gallas had "fouled" him. Ronaldo was flopping everywhere like a fish out of water. He "dove" in the penalty box when in reality he dove to try and head a cross, but when he could not reach it decided to make it resemble a french foul...drawing the loud complaints of Scolari and his bench. Portugal has too much talent to need to revert to similar tactics to get calls.
  • Ronaldo, see the above, but he needs to be pointed out. He was boat loads of talent. He can run at defenses alone, can distribute, can shoot, can cross, can out pace most defenders...yet he is best known for whining and diving. He is better than that. I fear that this reputation will stay with him through out the remainder of his career. After his antics, or apparent antics during the England game, he better watch his back, especially at practice assuming he remains at Manchester United.
  • Barthez's "save" on the Ronaldo shot....uh what was he doing? I realize the ball was knuckling. Having spent some time between the sticks myself, I understand that those shots are extremely difficult to handle, but usually can at least box the ball straight out...
  • The portugese bench, what was that water bottle tossing, as well as Scolari supposedly ranting and raving against the French after the game. Maybe Scolari were doing their best Argentina imitation, post game ranting and raving.
Overall the game was not a masterpiece. The first 15 minutes were frantic, both sides looked like they were going for an early goal. After France scored they began to start playing more defensively. The French were picking up the Portugese deeper, not as high as they did against Spain and Brazil. Also, the midfielders did not play the second ball on offense, rather staying anchored at midfield. This was a risky strategy, rather than going for the knock out blow they allowed the Portugese to dictate the pace. Granted, had Henry's powerful shot at the start of the second half all this would have been moot.

I think two major aspects played into this French strategy. First, I think they were tired. France played two highly charged games against Spain and Brazil. They had a lot of football in the legs. But more importantly I think they were under a genuine fear of the yellow card suspension. With key players under the yellow card threat: Franck Ribery, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zidane, Louis Saha, Willy Sagnol and Lilian Thuram, I think France were a little more gaurded in their efforts. It was evident watching Vieira that the yellow card issue weighed heavily on his mind. In a late second half tackle, one that earlier in the tournament might have drawn a yellow card, Vieira sprang up with a look of fear that he was about to receive that feared yellow card. Fortunately the yellow card did not come out of the ref's pocket. Thuram, still played with unabandoned effort, but he is usually not in a position to receive yellow card.

What do I mean by that, players like Vieira are more at risk for a card since he is running all over the field, running at players who are turning, dribbling, changing directions. This makes a player of his style more prone to catching a player's ankles from behind, or having to chase down a player from behind. Others like Ribery are in similar situations due to their position in the midfield, but as a more offensive players they are also at risk of clumsy mistakes leading to cards. While central defenders such as Thuram, tend to have the ball and players in front of them.

The combination of some tired legs and fear of yellow card punishment, made the French game plan more timid than in previous games. I do not think this will be the same for Sunday. There is no more Yellow Card fear, and being tired is trumped by the enormity of the game. More on that topic later.

In the end I think the French deserved the victory, while they did not control the match as well as the previous two, they showed the signs of a champion, winning when you are not 100%.

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