Saturday, July 01, 2006
Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal (vs England, penalty shootout), 1st July 2006
It had to be him, didn't it?
Cristiano Ronaldo spent most of this game in England's (and the referee's) face. When he wasn't running at the defenders with the ball at his feet, he was shamelessly throwing himself all over the ground looking for free kicks or needlessly imploring the referee to send off Wayne Rooney. He didn't actually play particularly well, but he certainly worked hard to make sure Portugal won the game.
How inevitable was it that he would score the winning penalty?
We played heroically after Rooney's dismissal. We absorbed wave after wave of Portuguese attacks and still managed to break forwards to create the better chances. If there is a fitter player at this World Cup than Owen Hargreaves, then I haven't seen him yet. He was everywhere. He started this tournament to jeers from his own fans, but he can leave it with his head held high. Ashley Cole too was tireless in defence and supporting the attacks. Ferdinand and Terry were heroic and generally solid. Lennon was a constant threat, injecting pace into the game and showing a great willingness to take on the defenders. Even Peter Crouch played well, ploughing a lonely furrow up-front and holding up the ball magnificently.
Did we deserve to win the game though? Really?
I'm not sure. Portugal look poor to me, and I fully expect the winner of tonight's game between France and Brazil to beat them and progress to the final. But did England really create the chances to go through? We were poor in the first half when it was 11 v 11, and we shouldn't let our magnificent rear-guard action conceal the fact that this England squad is lacking goals and invention. Sven was criticised for picking too few strikers in his squad, and even if we had come through this match, who the hell would we have played up front in the semi-final with Rooney suspended? Walcott was clearly never going to get a game. Never. Why the hell was he in the squad? Was Crouch likely to rip apart Brazil or France in a lone frontman role? Hardly.
What of Beckham? I think it's safe to assume that McClaren won't be discarding him, but he played poorly today even before he was forced off with a foot injury. His distribution was unusually slack and even his set piece delivery was woeful. It took an injury to force Sven's hand and replace his apparently un-droppable captain with a player who clearly represents England's future on the right flank.
As extra time drew to a close and Sven made his final roll of the dice, I rolled my eyes. With 90 seconds to go, the only possible reason for Lennon's substitution was that his replacement was going to be taking a penalty..... and who should trot on but Jamie Carragher. He's as honest a defender as you'll find, but in the nicest way possible, you had to fear the worst, didn't you?
Still, we would still have won the game if Lampard and Gerrard had scored from the spot. Who would have imagined that both of them would miss and that Hargreaves would score?
.... and it was those misses, together with Carragher's, that gave Ronaldo his chance to put Portugal through. Unfortunately he seized that chance with both hands.
England have been generally poor in this World Cup, but make no mistake about the fact that they had a brilliant chance of winning it: nobody left in the tournament is playing particularly well and all look beatable. With players like Rooney, Gerrard, Terry, Joe Cole, Lampard and... yes... players like David Beckham, we had a side well capable of winning the whole damn competition. But talent alone is not enough; it must be backed up by performances, and by that measure, England were never at the races. We could have won the World Cup. We really could have. That we didn't win it is partly down to bad luck -- shootouts are always a lottery -- but it must also partly be down to the manager: his tactics, his motivational skills... and yes, his squad selection.
So. Exit Sven Goran Eriksson. Not with a bang, but with an all too characteristic whimper.
..... and that winning goal for the French? Scoring pass provided to Thierry Henry by Zinedine Zidane, unless I'm very much mistaken. Zidane was magnificent tonight - and he's delivered where his successor as World Player of the Year has singularly failed to do so in this World Cup....
Retirement delayed for another week, and the best haircut in football plays on.