Thursday, March 29, 2018

Friendly Fire

Down and Out in Paris and London in the International Break

FRANCE 2:3 COLOMBIA          Stade de France, Paris
COLOMBIA 0:0 AUSTRALIA    Craven Cottage, London


It was the March international break and I opted to nip over to Paris on the Eurostar to check out two of the World Cup finalists before heading back to London to see another.

France v Colombia

As an England fan member who has spent the last quarter century travelling to see the Three Lions, I plead not guilty in choosing to ignore Gareth Southgate's latest experiment against Italy (1:1) at Wembley last night in favour of Colombia v Australia at Craven Cottage instead.

I am totally behind Southgate's cerebral enterprise, a brave metamorphosis of the national team into one which builds from a three-man defence and uses possession-based football instead of emphasizing those rather meaningless virtues of 'pride' and 'passion' which are invariably invoked by the tabloids.

The only thing is, England are in truth aiming at 2022 or even 2024 on the basis of their young guns' triumphs at U-19 and U-17 last summer so the current national team seems dangerously green and experimental so close to the World Cup finals.

Maybe it is the persistent underachievement of our heroes, maybe it is the manifest superiority of some other nations and club sides or maybe I am just getting old, but I am finding it hard to get so excited about England right now.

For all the talk of evolving a system, presumably to rival Spain's tiki-taka success between 2008 and 2012, England relies heavily on an old-fashioned, if brilliant centre-forward in Harry Kane.

Beyond him, when we should have a settled starting eleven, instead we have an erratic bunch of decent players, none of whom seem to be able to cement their places in the starting lineup.

Nobody is sure who will start for England in Russia. When I think of previous World Cup winners they have mostly arrived with a settled side and well-developed telepathy and Southgate's side are a country mile away from that consistency.

They should still hurdle the group stage without too much trouble but sterner tests await. As it stands, there seems to be a 50-50 chance England will face Colombia in the second round.

The sides are of similar standard - Los Cafeteros are ranked 13th by FIFA this month and England 16th, and coming from different confederations they have only met five times in history.

Darren Anderton and David Beckham despatched Hernan Dario Gomez's team from France '98 but their last meeting was in a New York friendly in 2005, where a Michael Owen hat-trick saw England win 3:2.

On Friday, Colombia started weakly against France in Paris, conceding two in the first 25 minutes. For France's first goal, goalkeeper David Ospina was to blame in patting a cross smack into the path of a lurking Olivier Giroud, his erstwhile Arsenal teammate.

France v Colombia

Giroud has never been a fan idol in France any more than in London but it is worth remembering this typically underrated striker has now equalled the tally scored for Les Bleus by legends Just Fontaine and Jean-Pierre Papin of 30 goals.

Two more would take him ahead of the equally legendary Zinedine Zidane.

The visitors looked rattled and the prospect of a hammering loomed. A large Colombian presence in the 80,000-full Stade de France notwithstanding, the team was playing as if feeling far from the comforts of home.

France's second was a piece of joy, a counter-attack of passes among multiple runners, redolent of the French rugby team of yore, with the exciting Kylian Mbappe on fire and a lethal finish from Thomas Lemar of Monaco.

This flash of flair was what many of us want to see at the World Cup. Didier Deschamps can call on the aforementioned talent in addition to Antoine Griezmann, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, firepower most coaches would be overjoyed to have in their ranks.

Jose Pekerman's men meanwhile looked winded, confirming how disappointingly they have failed to build on their thrillingly unexpected ride to the 2014 World Cup last eight.

Then just before the half hour a chink of light for them. Talisman James Rodriguez fed Luis Muriel on the left and the Sevilla forward curled a cross towards the far post.

Tottenham's Davinson Sanchez lurched towards the ball and the near post but missed, inadvertently throwing Hugo Lloris a dummy and letting the ball creep in at the unguarded far one.

A break, certainly. A gift from the gods all losing teams crave. 2-1 to the French at half time.

In the second half, France eased up while Colombia went through the gears. Just after the hour, Kante, the FWA, PFA and Premier League player of the season in 2017, lost control sloppily and Rodriguez pounced, zipping a grasscutter towards his former Porto teammate Radamel Falcao to fire home.

Colombia looked keener and got their reward with five minutes to spare. Blaise Matuidi lunged in and caught the ankle of Jose Izquierdo and River Plate attacker Juan Fernando Quintero lashed home an unstoppable penalty to hand an unexpected win to the visitors.

Indeed it was a game of two halves, or rather two thirds and one third.

The French media lamented the lack of leaders and passion in their side, a curiously English reaction but true. There was particular dismay at the fact their centre backs Samuel Umtiti and Rafael Varane played for Barcelona and Real Madrid no less but were cut through like paper in the second half.

There are some footballing traits or stereotypes which endure however and one can easily feel the French lack a little backbone.

At least the image of Mats Hummels out-muscling Varane to eliminate Les Bleus from the last World Cup suggests that in my mind.

France were universally popular when winning the World Cup on home soil in 1998 and remain a side popular with neutrals.

Yet the way they fell away at home to Colombia after going two up means it is impossible to be confident in them going all the way.

France play Australia, Denmark and Peru in Russia and should they exit that group as expected will play one of Argentina, Croatia, Iceland or Nigeria in the next round.

As regards the fan experience, it was a typical big full arena one: A visual spectacle of colour and waving flags, but long distance sight lines can never be as good as being close to the action.

It reminded me a lot of watching England at Wembley, although entering the Stade de France there were longer security checks, probably inspired by the endless wave of atrocities on French soil.

In the upper tier, there was bizarrely no stewarding to be seen. When three beer-swilling mates opted to stand in the aisle and block views as well as routes of escape despite the requests of others, there was nobody to tell them to desist.

The steward standing by the entrance replied there was noting she could do when asked, an extraordinary failure of authority and organisation by the stadium.

Australia v Colombia

Colombia arrived in London buoyed by their win and with another 20,000-odd fans to support them, but despite dominating the match failed to beat an Australia team ranked 24 places below them.

Australia v Colombia

They came close. Rodriguez had a diving header saved by a quick-fingered debutant Danny Vukovic while substitute striker Miguel Borja had an extraordinary night.

He hit the post twice, had a goal disallowed for offside and had a late penalty saved.

James remains the ace in the pack but los Cafeteros have a number of useful cards to play in Russia:

Left back Johan Mojica looks assured and whips in dangerous crosses, Abel Aguilar at 33 is still a precision passer from defensive midfield and they have a pack of attacking talent.

Borja is an intimidating number nine and the experienced Carlos Bacca is another useful alternative striker to Falcao.

Izquierdo, Muriel and the diminutive Yimmi Chara all like to run at defences and the emphasis is on attack.

Ospina is a little accident-prone between the sticks, which makes Pekerman's lack of playing time for his understudies in these friendlies a little surprising, although Ospina's few appearances for Arsenal this season (15) was the probable reason.

Australia held firm despite the South American onslaught and carved out a couple of chances themselves.

Two minutes before half time Tomi Juric flashed a chance just wide of the far post and in the 69th minute Massimo Luongo sidestepped three defenders delightfully but could only fire straight at Ospina.

Australia v Colombia

The Socceroos are not the outfit they were in 2006, when they were unlucky to be knocked out by eventual winners Italy, but they will be no pushovers in Russia and will surely improve on their 2014 nightmare when they went home after losing all their first round games.

Australia will be anxious as will all 32 finalists going into the tournament but some have bigger headaches than others.

I came home from a chilly West London to find the holders Germany had lost at home to Brazil, the very team they humiliated on their own turf in 2014, Argentina, the other finalists had been hammered 6-1 by Spain and that hosts Russia had lost again, 3-1 at home to France.

As of now there is little sign the host nation will be anything better than South Africa was in 2010.

Then Japan and Egypt both lost at home to teams which had not qualified for Russia - 2-1 to Ukraine and 1-0 to Greece respectively, while Sweden, another finalist, lost 1-0 away to Romania, who also missed the boat.

Time for ironing out the creases is running out.

The big show kicks off on the 14th of June in Moscow.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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