(For the 1st part of this article, thoughts on the U-20 World Cup and the U-21 European Championships, go here)
The 2015 edition of the South American footballing festival took place in Chile and ended the country’s hunger for a major tournament win, with the hosts lifting the trophy for the first time in their history.
Outside of the arbitral controversies that always permeate these events one way or another, and that, in some moments, surely helped Chile advance, the eventual Champions were no less deserving of the honours, performing admirably in front of their fans and never succumbing to the pressure of carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Masterfully implementing an all-out attacking style of play that seduced every football fan and made the best of their stars, with the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas free to roam the pitch, interchange positions and pounce on goal at every occasion, Chile supplemented its swashbuckling, intense system with an extremely high line of defence and pressure all over the field.
As such, Chile’s games were synonymous with highly-entertaining football and it’s no surprise that the best match of the tournament, and probably the entire football year, was their group finale against Mexico, a 3-3 thriller that awed every spectator with uncountable chances and top-class finishes.
Such exciting brand of football proved risky for the hosts, caught off-guard on defence several times, but didn’t stopped them from sticking with their guns and believing on a defence that embodies the spirit of his leader. Gary Medel, the “Pitbull”, spent the games dispatching service where fires emerged, tightly harassing opposing strikers, and encouraging his team from a backend that navigated between a line of 3 or 4 elements. The variation relied on the position of Marcelo Diaz, the astute Hamburg defensive midfielder that split attentions between helping out his centre backs and using his passing skills to transition the play to the offense quickly, a must for Chile’s system.
In front of Diaz, an impressive midfield got complete with the world-class talent of Arturo Vidal, who may well have been the least remarkable of the sector since he lagged behind the performances of the cerebral Jorge Valdivia, absolutely magical at times exploring the runs of his forwards, and the tireless Charles Aránguiz. Two “carrileros” on the wings provided support and width while, on the attack, Sanchez and Vargas were a nightmare for opposing defences due to their mobility, speed and spontaneity. And lest we forget the starting goaltender, FC Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, whose calm demeanour bounced on his teammates in stressful moments, and who only allowed a goal outside of the Mexico game (Chile was already qualified to the quarter-finals by then).
The side prepared by Jorge Sampaoli was far from a surprise, having already been one of the most distinguished teams at last year’s World Cup, but it was inspiring to see the golden generation of Chilean football finally come through, seven years after Marcelo Bielsa started the work that Sampaoli smartly completed and built on after taking over in 2012.
However, the Argentinian coach shouldn’t be depreciated, since he did a perfect job adapting his team for the final, playing much more conservatively in order to reduce the space Messi and Pastore had to manufacture on the final third. The 0-0 decider didn’t have the beauty of the rest of Chile’s performances but Sampaoli played his cards right and got lucky on the penalty shootout.
Beyond the new South American Champions, reflexions on the other contenders:
• Peru was the most interesting squad outside of the versatile Chileans, going off in the semi-final against the hosts but only after displaying incredible fighting spirit, coming back to tie the game after seeing captain Lobatón sent off early on the first half. Right back Luis Advíncula and midfielder Christian Cueva were players that saw their quotation sky rock during the tournament, but veterans like Jefferson Farfán, Juan Vargas and Paolo Guerreiro performed admirably for the generally young side under the guidance of Ricardo Gareca. In particular, Guerreiro ended the tournament as the joint top goal scorer (4 goals) alongside Chile’s Eduardo Vargas, with an hat-trick against Bolivia, in the quarter-finals, pushing him towards renewing an accolade he had already collected in 2011.
• Argentina’s 22-year title drought continues despite Messi’s best efforts, with his senior résumé still missing that elusive international award. He lost his third final, after the 2007 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup, and had to watch hopelessly as his teammates failed to follow his lead even in the decisive penalty shootout. In comparison with the squad that lost the final last year, Tata Martino kept the main pieces but made slight chances in personal, the most important of which was the inclusion of Javier Pastore as a playmaker, shifting Messi wide. The crafty PSG midfielder slowly clicked with Angel Di Maria and the Barcelona superstar, and the Argentinian’s kept improving as the tournament progressed, resulting in the 6-1 thumping of Paraguay in the semis, with the trio producing a glittering display. It was a real shame they couldn’t build on that momentum after losing Di Maria’s dazzling runs during the final due to injury.
• Eager to put behind the “Maracanazo”, the Brazilian national team had high hopes for this Copa America but Dunga’s group showed the same problems of the World Cup. Extreme overreliance in Neymar, who got kicked out of the competition following the defeat against Colombia in the second match, a sub-par defensive scheme, and individual mistakes that just can’t be accepted at this level of competition. Whilst Neymar was already on vacation, the experienced Thiago Silva committed an absurd penalty to allow Paraguai to tie the quarter-final encounter and eventually go through on penalties. Most of the squad was sick heading into that game, but that’s just not enough to dismiss the idea that, had they went on, the title was an illusion without the services of their star winger. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are nice players, partially covering for the imagination absent without Neymar, but it’s just depressing when the best Brazil can muster, with an international competition on the line, is a forward unit consisting of Diego Tardelli, Roberto Firmino and a 31-year-old Robinho.
• Paraguay completed the semi-finals alignment not only due to Brazil’s screw ups but also because of the bravery, belief and resiliency shown over the entire tournament, especially on the draw snatched against Argentina on the inaugural fixture, coming back from two goals down. Ramon Diaz’s team lacked the talent of some of its rivals but reaped the benefits of a successful mix between savvy strikers like Lucas Barrios and younger creators such as Edgar Benitez and Derlis González, the skilled 21-year-old Basel forward.
• For a Colombian team that disappointed after last year’s run in Brazil, 23-year-old center-back Jeison Murillo was the revelation – earning the nomination as the best young player of the competition – and, most disturbingly, the only goal scorer, since “Los Cafeteros” failed to find the back of the net on any other opportunity despite all the firepower upfront. The roster oriented by José Pékerman failed to score against Venezuela and Peru, and left the competition after a disastrous penalty shootout against Argentina, in a match they only dragged that long because of several incredible saves by goalkeeper David Ospina.
• The defending Champions, Uruguay, were usurped by the eventual Champions in a polemic quarter-final match, but they weren’t far from going out even earlier, having narrowly edged Jamaica for their only win in Chile. Without the suspended Luiz Suárez, “Los Charrúas” suffered to score goals and an unsettled Edison Cavani didn’t help their cause, even if the defence was as stout as usual, with Atletico Madrid’s José Giménez and Diego Godin manning the backend with aplomb.
Women’s World Cup
An historical tournament, a tremendous event, and a big step forward for the world of football on the female side: the 2015 World Cup beat attendance and television records from previous editions, proved that the decision to expand to 24 national teams had solid foundations to stand on, and boasted unprecedented following on all platforms and major countries. All of this was only possible due to the excellent level of play and competitiveness throughout the 52 matches that definitely turned the Women’s World Cup into the second biggest event, at the country level, in the sport. And, hopefully, FIFA will realise that playing it on turf, like some secondary tournament, can’t (WON’T!) happen ever again.
Focusing on what occurred on the field, the United States of America celebrated at the end, triumphing over defending Champions Japan on the final held almost on their own backyard, in Vancouver, Canada. With the win, the Americans become the first team to lift the trophy in three occasions (1991, 1999, 2015), leaving the company of Germany, the only other repeating Champion (2003, 2007).
The eventual winners got better as the tournament progressed after a hesitating group phase and reached their peak just at the right time, building momentum as their performances and confidence increased during the knockout rounds. If the team commanded by Jill Ellis was lucky to reach the half time break of their inaugural game tied 1-1 with Australia, they wouldn’t see another ball go past their goaltender until the Final of the competition, showcasing an unexpected defensive efficiency that allowed the attack to found its stride. The Americans eventually managed to take their first game by 3-1, but scored only once during the following two matches (0-0 against Sweden and 1-0 over Nigeria) before sweating to break the resistance of Colombia on the round of 16, benefiting from the sent-off of the opposing goalie early on the second half.
However, Colombia’s game was a turning point to the team, since the suspensions to two starters, midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, forced Ellis to explore other options heading into the quarter-final against China. The coach decided to drop 35-year-old striker Abby Wambach, the most prolific goal scorer in international women’s football history, to the bench and inserted 22-year-old Morgan Brian in the line-up, opening the door to a tactical change that ultimately solved their offensive shortcomings. Without Wambach, Alex Morgan was left as the lone forward and the team unleashed the in-form Carli Lloyd to focus on producing offense, with Holiday and Brian providing the defensive backing on the midfield. Thus, moving away from a static, predictable, overwrought 4-4-2 where the target of Wambach’s head was too big to resist, a new 4-2-3-1 system emerged, allowing for more possession and player movement, with Lloyd and wingers Rapinoe and Tobin Heath blossoming.
After dispatching China with a header by Lloyd, on the semi-final against Germany, the number one team in the World, the Americans undoubtedly caught two huge breaks: Julie Johnston escaping a red card for the fault that gave the Germans a penalty missed with the game still tied 0-0; and Alex Morgan stopped at the outside edge of the box on the other end, with the referee awarding the penalty Lloyd would convert to open the score.
However, on the final, the USWNT held no prisoners, obliterating the team that had defeated them four years prior, at the same stage, with 4 goals in the first 16 minutes, including an hat trick for Lloyd completed with this ridiculous tally.
Naturally, the New Jersey-native was the star of the tournament, receiving the Golden Ball, for best player, and the silver boot – after tying for the goal scoring lead with 6 goals, the same obtained by Germany’s Celia Sasic in fewer minutes – but the team’s defensive unit also performed at almost unprecedented levels, missing by mere seconds a new shutout record in a single World Cup (539 minutes to Germany’s 540 in 2007). The merit lied on the near-irreprehensible work of the central-pair former by Becky Sauerbrunn and tournament-debutant Julie Johnston, full backs Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg, and goaltender Hope Solo. On the other hand, an attack that had several potent weapons at its disposal received only two goals from forwards, with Wambach and Christen Press notching once during the group phase, but watching from the bench alongside Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez as Lloyd stole the show. Alex Morgan, the brightest diamond in the box, didn’t find the back of the net but worked diligently, even if she lacked explosiveness due to a less than ideal preparation marred by injuries.
Time for some notes on the rest of the field:
• Japan reached the final for the third consecutive major tournament (2011 and 2015 World Cup, 2012 Olympics) but this was probably their most uninspired performance. The Nadeshiko won every game until the final but couldn’t assemble any triumph that wasn’t for the lowest margin. Not even against Ecuador, a team that was absolutely blitzed by minnows Cameroon (6-0) and debutant Switzerland (10-1). Norio Sasaki’s side also lucked out in avoiding the other main contenders in the knockout rounds and could only take care of Australia (QF) and England (SF) due to late regulation strikes, which were wrapped up in tremendous amounts of fortune. The Japanese kept their patented style, built on short passes, imagination, and tricky, involving plays, but the difference-maker that veteran Homare Sawa was on the 2011 campaign just never materialised as they struggled to convert on chances. Although Captain Aya Miyama tried to fill the void and performed admirably (2 G + 1 A, Bronze Ball winner), her positioning on the field, mostly on the left wing, was a headscratcher, limiting her influence. Certainly, it wasn’t a coincidence that the team only stabilized during the Final after she moved back in, settling her teammates and organizing the reaction. However, by that time, the win was already out of reach due to a series of lapses by a defence clearly overwhelmed by the rampant American start.
• Germany was another squad that wasn’t at his best in Canada, looking sloppy at times. The Germans didn’t close out Norway on their only challenging game on the group stage, but seemed to be heating up with an authoritative 4-1 win over Sweden on the round of 16. However, on the most compelling match of the entire tournament, they were outplayed by a talented French team and had to thank goaltender Nadine Angerer for squeezing through on penalties. The semi-final clash with the USA was decided on details and they have reasons to complain about key refereeing judgments, but that doesn’t conceal the fact that their level of play was lacking at times. With Nadine Kessler already out of the tournament, the Germans suffered another huge blow due to Dzsenifer Marozsan’s recurring physical limitations, which restricted their creativity on the midfield and left Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag starved for quality balls (the pair amassed 11 goals combined on the tournament, but more than half were obtained on the 10-0 thrashing of Ivory Coast). Nevertheless, in the middle of another disappointing performance and the second consecutive world competition away from the podium, a bright spot arose in the play of 21-year-old Melanie Leopolz, who thrived alongside Lena Goessling at the center of the park.
• England was the biggest surprise of the tournament, capping the best outcome of their history with their first ever win against Germany on the 3rd place match. The Lionesses were defeated by France on the inaugural match but rebounded to reach the knockout stage, when they piled on upsets. First, with a comeback victory over Norway, then a stunning 2-1 win over hosts Canada, silencing the 50,000 inside the BC Place in Vancouver, and finally beating Germany to secure the Bronze. Before this, however, they almost shocked Japan, missing several chances to take a 2-1 lead during the second half before an incredibly cruel own-goal by Laura Bassett, in injury-time, handed the final place to their opponents. The captain Fara Williams, perfect from the penalty spot on three opportunities, and the timely offensive contributions of defenders Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton were essential to England’s run, but the side led by 32-year-old Mark Sampson impressed the most due to an hard-working nature that started on the forwards, with the inspiration of Eniola Aluko quickly side-lined in favour of the strength and stamina exhibited by Jodie Taylor or Toni Duggan.
• For France, the 2015 World Cup wasn’t the definitive confirmation as a Cup-winning side on the Women’s game but it wasn’t for the lack of talent. The French suffered a thunderous setback on a 2-0 loss to Colombia on the group stage yet rebounded quickly to dispatch Mexico and South Korea, setting up a match worthy of a final. Against Germany, France went up on a Louisa Necib strike but a dubious penalty tied the game and “Les Blueues” fell on penalties despite dominating much of the 120 minutes. Even with the precocious farewell, defensive anchor Amandine Henry was awarded the Silver Ball, a fair recognition for a roster laden with players that have won everything at the club level, but have yet to reach a major final for the country, with another opportunity looming when France hosts the next World Cup in 2019.
• The hosts had high hopes for the event but they never seemed to unwind with the pressure of the home crowd, failing to put together any imposing performance even against four less than stellar opponents (China, New Zealand, Netherlands, Switzerland) to start the competition. Only three goals obtained in four matches were worrying signals, and when the team fell into a two-goal hole in the quarter-final against England, Canada just seemed to lack the firepower to turn the score around. Captain Christine Sinclair gave some hope with her only goal in the tournament not scored on a penalty, but the unbending English backline held on. The performance of Sinclair was disappointing throughout the event but she just didn’t have much help from a squad missing offensive talent. The signature Canadian forward is 32-years-old and her succession has to be a concern, but, at least, Canada has someone to look out on defence, the flamboyant 19-year-old skipper Kadeisha Buchanan, who confirmed expectations by picking up the World Cup’s best young player award.
• Canada underachieved but the hosts weren’t the only ones, with Brazil and Sweden leaving the tournament through the backdoor. Marta’s team walked unscathed through the group phase, winning every game and keeping their net immaculate, but an Australian tally with ten minutes to go on their round of 16 match determined Brazil’s fate and set a terrible harbinger for next year’s Olympics. The South American’s were doomed by the lack of punch displayed by their top forward duo, with Marta (1 goal) and Cristiane (0) unable to convert on the chances created on a “do or die” occasion. Marta’s marker, though, was enough to tie former German striker Birgit Prinz for the record of most goals on World Cup history (15), and Formiga, at the ripe age of 37, become the oldest markswoman in the event during Brazil’s opening win over South Korea.
• Sweden’s presentation was even worse, with the team kicking off the tournament with an atrocious defensive performance against Nigeria (3-3) and leaving Canada without a single victory. Pia Sundhage’s side was at his best on the battle against the eventual World Champions (0-0), maybe because the coach knew so much about the opponents, but they failed to build on that during the Australia (1-1) match, and sneaked on as one of the third place teams. The final score of their elimination game against Germany (1-4) tells the entire story of a mediocre display and the country’s need to reflect on what went wrong. They can start on the complete vanishing of star forward Lotta Schelin and Nilla Fischer’s failure to stabilize the defensive sector, but Sundhage’s options also left a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, some newcomers showed potential to assume key roles down the line, including a duo of 22-year-old defenders: Elin Rubensson and Amanda Ilestedt.
• On the other end, the most positive confirmation (not really a revelation) of the competition were the Matildas, whose showings in Canadian soil exhibited skill, pace and youthful exuberance in dozens. Alen Stajcic’s side not only pushed the USA, at times, like no other team could manage over the tournament, but they also imposed the first true upset of the event, jettisoning Brazil before going toe to toe with Japan. A late, really unfortunate goal sank Australia’s dream for now, but the staggering amount of under-25 talent on the Aussie team guarantees that they’ll be even better in four years. It’s just a matter of getting Steph Catley (21), Emily Van Egmond (22), Elise Kellond-Knight (24), Katrina Gorry (22), Samantha Kerr (21), Kyah Simon (24) and Caitlin Foord (20) to deliver on their potential and acquire more experience.
(To read part I, go here)