Thursday, June 28, 2012

Portugal's Euro 2012 Epitaph: 'Injustica'

My sorrows have officially been drowned, and it's now time to write the epitaph on Portugal's Euro 2012 run to the semifinals, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo's place in football history.

Where to begin?

Pride of Portugal -- from A Bola
CR7. Someone on Twitter posted a great GIF of Ronaldo incredulous after the final Spain penalty kick clanged off the post to Rui Patricio's right and went in. "Injustica" Unjust is the loose translation. Over and over he said it. As we all know, Ronaldo watched from the center circle as Portugal lost 4-2 in PKs sending Spain to the Euro final on Sunday and Portugal home once again to cry itself to sleep wearing its bridesmaid's dress after a major tournament.

Apparently, the plan Paulo Bento hatched in his brain was for the penalties to play themselves out to a 4-4 draw and Ronaldo would step up, bury the fifth one as he did in the 2006 World Cup, and Portugal would be sitting pretty with another extra day of rest awaiting Germany or Italy for the final. No thought given to Ronaldo going first, or second. No thought given as to why the world's second best player, the best player in this tournament, a guy on his way to becoming his country's greatest player, wouldn't take a penalty ahead of, say, two fullbacks and a pitiful playmaking midfielder who certainly left a pee stain on the penalty spot in Donetsk last night.

No, instead, we're gonna save you to the end. Because, you know. we'll get there.

Oops.

So much good work undone  by what was surely a joint decision to hold Ronaldo to fifth in line. Who's call is it? Ultimately and formally, it's Bento's. He's the boss. But surely he conferred with Ronaldo and the conversation probably went something like this: "Wanna go first?" "Nah, fifth." "Fifth?" "Fifth. I'll win it." "But." "Fifth."

Ronaldo's massive ego, I'm guessing, plays a role here. Going first is cool, but it's not as cool as fifth. For instance, you don't have as much time to decide on whether to spike the doo, or go with the comb-over if you go first. You don't have that lasting image of the camera following you after you make the game-winner; Christ, he probably already rehearsed his celebration--just in case, you know. I mean, who's gonna take the fifth one? Nelson Rodrigues? Child please.

Joao Moutinho, the sudden darling of this tournament for Portugal, went first. And he had a chance to give Portugal the early--and probably decisive edge--in penalties. Spain went first, and Xabi gagged on it and ever-heroic Rui Patricio made a clutch, fantastic, tremendous, ballsy save. He was everything Ronaldo wasn't yesterday--hell throughout the tournament. He was quiet, did his job and didn't fail. Enter Moutinho--not Ronaldo--who was absolutely stone cold terrified of the situation. Unsure over the ball, Moutinho basically wet himself putting the ball on the spot. He tip-toed behind the ball, made a feeble run and hit a weak effort that Iker Casillas surely giggled at. He swatted it away and all the good Patricio had done was wiped away.

Pepe and Nani made their PKs, as did Iniesta and Pique for Spain -- should we get into the Nani-Bruno Alves clusterfuck? Were they playing head games with Spain? Or did they truly not know the order? And was Alves really ready mentally to go, and Nani pulling him back screwed the pooch? Who knows? What we saw was Alves hit a bomb, a titanic shot to Casillas' left, high and out of reach of the Spain keeper. if not for that pesky crossbar, we'd be talking about Portgual in the final perhaps--you know, with Ronaldo burying the fifth one.

Instead, Cesc Fabregas stepped up. Patricio stared him down and didn't move an millimeter. The keeper guessed correctly and dove to his right. Fabregas hit the ball in that direction and the ball clanged off the post and ricocheted into the goal, crossing the line by inches as it settled into the opposite netting, surely smirking at Ronaldo as it rolled home.

Injustica. Sure Cristiano. But why unjust? Because you lost, or because you were robbed of a golden moment? I'm  sure it's a little bit of both for you. And that's sad for a nation that surely wept, because Portugal was heroic this month--you too Cristiano. Portugal could have conjured up a win in the final, just as it could have beaten the defending World Cup and Euro champions yesterday. But a cavalcade of decisions--don't even get me started on how Portugal played 30 minutes of extra time on its heels allowing Spain to attack (Patricio is this team's MVP)--undid this team at the worst possible time.

Injustica.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Me on the Talking to the Doll podcast

Some self-promotional love: I was graciously invited to do the Talking to the Doll podcast last night along with @ordoetchao, @bigsoccerheadny and of course the host and Benfiquista (we don't hold that against him) @TalkingToDaDoll.

Give the episode a listen here at http://talkingtothedoll.podbean.com/2012/06/21/episode-22-62112/

We had a good time talking all things Portuguese national team, including spending some time on the wins over Denmark and Holland, as well as previewing today's quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic (these guys know their shizz about Czech football). We also pick a Portugal MVP for the group stage.

Check it out--and give the pod some love and subscribe to it on iTunes (I do)!!!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Euro 2012 Quarterfinal Predictions: Cutting Eight Down to Four

Seven out of eight is a pretty good run. Winning seven of eight games in any game, any league. Seven of eight rolls at the craps table. Seven of eight PKs scored. Seven hits in eight at-bats (that's baseball, folks). All in all, a pretty good run.

England's Best Hope
What am I rambling about? Of course, it's horn-blowing 101: I got seven of my eight Euro 2012 quarterfinalist predictions correct. Woo-hoo! That and a buck (that's a dollar, folks) will get you a newspaper to burn in the outdoor fireplace later today.

My only miss was the Czech Republic; I had hosts Poland making it through--winning as a matter of fact--in Group A. Oh well, can't hit 'em all. I got Greece knocking off the Russians and Sweden not having enough legs to topple either France or England.

So now we have new matchups in the quarterfinals starting on Thursday. The Czechs take on Portugal, and my personal biases aside, how does Portugal not advance here? Portugal is playing well and escaped the Group of Death on a high note with two straight wins. Not to mention that Cristiano Ronaldo has found redemption-and his scoring touch, the defense has been solid and the team is intact.

On Friday, Germany goes head-on with Greece in a really intriguing matchup. I'm tempted to say 4-nil Germany and be done with Greece, but 2004 still tortures my brain and I will never, ever count out the Greeks.

The weekend promises to be epic--well if you're into big names. Spain-France opens the festivities Saturday and the pundits are actually trying to paint Spain with the brush of a declining team. Ramos can't defend. Torres can't score. Too much is on Casillas. Blah,  blah, blah. If only the rest of the tournament had Spain's talent and experience. France, meanwhile, was God-awful against Sweden and played half-heartedly with nothing on the line. I'm a firm believer in a short tournament that resting players and taking a day off is fatal. It's too hard to ramp back up, and if Spain doesn't win 3-0, it will be an upset.

England-Italy, meanwhile, is going to be interesting. Hopefully the sun is out and I can hit the beach Sunday afternoon here in New England and waltz back into the house in time for penalty kicks. Because these two are going to sleepwalk and bore us to death for 120 minutes and then England will be up against it in PKs. And England and PKs are toxic.

My predictions:

Czech Republic vs. Portugal (0-2)
Germany vs. Greece (2-1)
Spain vs. France (4-1)
England vs. Italy (0-0, 1-4 PKs)

Euro 2012 semifinals predictions

Spain vs. Portugal
Germany vs. Italy.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo's True Redemption: A Euro 2012 Championship

Never one to shy away from being critical of the brightest and best players, I am going to resist temptation to slam one Cristiano Ronaldo. It's so in vogue after all, but I'm no trend follower. And, what's a couple of missed breakaways between friends?

Ronaldo certainly got his redemption Sunday against the dumpy Dutch to lead Portugal out of the Euro 2012 Group of Death and into the quarterfinals. Two clutch goals erased an early 1-0 lead and cemented CR7 as the most polarizing figure of Euro 2012 so far. Ronaldo has for so long been an enigma in a Portugal jersey. Either brilliant or baffling, he's never boring.

Ronaldo mohawk or faux-hawk?
Ronaldo's woes were really magnified when he missed two breakaways against Denmark, a game Portugal won 2-1. He also hit a couple of posts against the Netherlands on Sunday and had another blatant chance for what could have been a fifth. In the opener against Germany, Ronaldo had opportunities, but didn't get the ball enough and apparently spent too much time changing his hairstyle to a mohawk at halftime to concentrate on the mighty Germans. Maybe he figured he'd see them again in the final?

Ronaldo is definitely trending upward however. He's been better in each match; if you're hitting posts, it means you're in position to score--never a bad thing. Ronaldo has also played both ends of the field and been Portugal's overall best player. And he should be. Aside from he-who-shall-not-be-named, CR7 is the best player on the field every time he's on it. His superfluous step-overs aside, he has tremendous speed and intimidates defenders into playing off of him, even as he's bearing down on the box. He's an obnoxious diver, and a selfish whiner to the referees as we saw in the first half of the Holland game (you can't start screaming for a call when your teammates are attacking behind you!).

But there are tradeoffs we all make in every walk of life. Those of you who live on Facebook give up gobs of privacy to the Cult of Zuckerberg in order to share all those innocuous details about your lunch. In football, you tolerate the quirks of the prissy Ronaldos of the game because when they're brilliant, they're awe-inspiring. You don't score 60 goals in a season without being special. And naturally, winning La Liga, getting to the Champions League semis, the Euro 2012 quarterfinals and scoring 60 goals isn't enough in this what-have-you-done-for-me lately society.

And I guess that's OK. Sports fans can be selfish. I root for Portugal. I want them to win. I'm already trying to figure out how they can beat Spain in the semis once they shoo aside the Czechs on Thursday. But I'm also a realist, and I understand that they won't do squat without Cristiano Ronaldo again scoring one, two or three times. Portugal has weaknesses, yet players such as CR7 cover up a lot of blemishes.

Redemption against the Netherlands is one thing. Ronaldo has beaten back some personal demons perhaps, and regained some lost confidence. Now it's time to take that to the next level and excel in every game left on Portugal's slate and perhaps fulfill your destiny as the country's best player ever?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Euro 2012 Underwhelming So Far? Meh-Be

Now that everyone has dipped their toes into the Euro 2012 waters, what can we say about the tournament so far? Meh? Too harsh? Let's look at the evidence.

  • Ukraine. Obviously, the hosts saved the best for last with a thriller of a 2-1 bashing of Sweden starring ancient (?) Andriy Shevchenko. Sheva ticked the twine twice and is the tournament's leading scorer with the upset of the Ibrahimovic-led Swedes. Cripes, it was an all-AC Milan affair today on the scoreboard and a real peach of a game. This leaves a good taste in our mouths as we head back toward Group A on Tuesday and the crucial second matches in each group. Until then, the tourney's been tasting a little bland.
  • Poland. The other cordial host of Euro 2012 opened with a flourish against Greece on Friday with a quick goal and a lot of pressure against an older Greek side. Toss in a red card against its keeper and a miracle penalty-kick save by the cold backup and Greece's tying goal and we had a chipper start to the best tournament in the world.
  • Denmark. Yes, they partied like it was 1992 after beating Holland 1-0 in what becomes the most compelling storyline of the tournament. What of the Dutch? Netherlands and Germany clash on Wednesday in what is sure to be the match of the tournament with the talented and oh-so-fortunate Germans waiting for the Dutch. Fortunate? Sure I'm biased, but Portugal should have beaten Germany. Should haves are lame in sports, but the German goal came on a cross deflected by a Portugal defender to the head of Mario Gomez (how the fuck is he German?) Portugal deserved better and should get it against Denmark, making the Portugal-Holland game Match of the Tournament II.
  • Spain, Italy, France, England. Snore, bore, zzzzz, no more. Please. No more. From ESPN's incessant whining that England would have done better with Wayne Rooney, to France's late winner in 2008 against England (what does that have to do with today?), to Spain going for three major titles in a row (a first) to Italy making me reach for my melatonin, can we just eliminate them all from polluting the final eight?
  • Russia and Croatia. The biggest outbursts of the tournament came from the clubs least expected to burst outwardly. Russia dismantled the Czechs like it was their freaking job. And Croatia sent Trapattonni searching for his passport outta Dublin. Let's see if it lasts with Croatia still having Spain and Italy on its dance card and the Russians having to hold on against Poland and Greece. 

Meh? Maybe not so much. I have high hopes for Matchday 2.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Euro 2012: Predictions And The Winner Is

Can Spain repeat? Will Germany break through Spain's dominance? Who is the darkhorse team? Which favorites will fall? Who will win Euro 2012?

Here's my take on the title taker! First, however, a look back at my group predictions in order of finish:

Group A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic
Group B: Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, Denmark
Group C: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia
Group D: France, England, Sweden, Ukraine

Quarterfinals

Poland vs. Portugal (0-2)
Germany vs. Greece (4-0)
Spain vs. England (3-1)
France vs. Italy (0-1)

Repeat
Semifinals

Spain vs. Portugal (2-0)
Germany vs. Italy (3-0)

Final

Germany vs. Spain (1-2)


Cristiano Ronaldo's Destiny Depends on His Dominance of Euro 2012

Despite it being a physical impossibility, Lionel Messi casts a big shadow over the super-sized ego and talents of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona's Messi usually outscores Real Madrid's Ronaldo. Barca is the team of the century largely because of the diminutive Messi's amazing balance, instinct and ability. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has two Champions League titles, a handful of domestic championships, has scored close to 300 goals in his career. And still, Messi is first in line--and not because he's shorter or ahead of Ronaldo alphabetically.
Irina Shayk Ronaldo?

As sensational as CR7 is, Messi is just that much better. Little man, big shadow.

Yet with Euro 2012 on our doorstep in 24 hours, Ronaldo won't have that built-in Messi excuse. Leo will be home watching, or lounging on a beach with a babe somehwere, while Ronaldo has the weight of expectation on his shoulders. No excuses CR7, this is your tournament to own, manhandle and perhaps win.

This is by some accounts not a very strong or deep Portugal side. They're built ass-backwards, relatively weak in the back, and top heavy with flashy talent up front. Not to mention they're in Group B, the Group of Death along with Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. This is a tall mountain to climb for the Selecao Das Quinas, yet they've got a pretty agile dude up front on the left-hand side who can take this team to the summit.

Much like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't exactly set the world on fire wearing his national team jersey. In 90 capped appearances, he has 32 goals, that's one every three matches. Fast-forward that to the Euro, and that's not a good ratio--one goal in the group stage won't get it done.

Ronaldo clearly will draw extra attention from any opponent, but that hasn't stopped him from scoring at better than a goal a game in his domestic career. But he hasn't come close to matching that pace for Portugal. He scored 46 times domestically for Real Madrid this season leading that team to the La Liga title, his first in Spain and the first time he nudged Messi off any pedestal. Ronaldo has 127 goals in all competitions over the last two season, a seriously Xbox 360-like number of tallies. 

He has domestic championships, Champions League winners' medals, domestic cup wins. The international cup vacancy on his mantle is pretty glaring. Getting to the 2004 Euro final was little of his doing. He had a pretty fair World Cup in 2006, hitting a big penalty to beat England in the quarterfinals. Yet Portugal crashed out in the semis, and in the second round of the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup.

Superstars step up on the brightest stage. Michael Jordan always took the last shot--and made most of them. Larry Bird cut your heart out in the fourth quarter. The Montreal Canadiens always won in overtime in the playoffs. Joe Montana and Tom Brady always come through when it counts. Cristiano Ronaldo is on that plane, higher considering the worldwide audience. His Portugal legacy has to be cemented on Saturday against Germany. He lacks that two-goal masterpiece in a must-have game on his international resume. He needs to shake off close, physical markers in big games. He cannot rely on diving to win favor with officials. He needs to bury a trademark knuckleball free kick with the world watching.

He won't be against Malaga or Macedonia in the Euro. Three of Europe's best await, and if Cristiano Ronaldo wants to be Michael Jordan, he has to hoist this Portugal team on his back and carry them. He has to dominate against Germany. He has to demand the ball, dance through the German back line and score not once, but twice. The Germans must have reason to fear him, not just respect him.

This will not be an easy road for Portugal, but this is the time when stars shine. Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal's true star. Do the math.