The cream is rising to the top after several early round upsets and upstarts at the World Cup 2022. This weekend, Argentina, England, France, and the Netherlands showed why they are some of the favorites at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Ambitious climbers like Australia, Senegal, Poland, and, yet again, United States showed why the Qatar World Cup 2022 would not be a Cinderella story, but would, like Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl, return to their working class status.
Example number one: the U.S. squad, which, instead of building upon its status as the Golden Generation, was, like so many generations before them, overmatched by a technically superior squad. One upside for patriot fans returning early from the desert: at least they’ll be able to drink a beer outside of enclosed corrals. Let’s open up the gates and dig into the action.
While both teams squandered some early opportunities to score, Japan won a free kick at the end of the first half, which resulted in a goal. Croatia rallied in the 55th minute with a gorgeous header by Ivan Perisic. Extra time kept the score at 1-1, leading to the World Cup 2022’s first penalty shootout. Croatia’s goalkeeping was the real story here, as Dominik Livakovic saved three penalty kicks, resulting in a 3-1 win over Japan.
To the surprise of no one, Brazil dominated South Korea in the round of 16, winning handily 4-1. While the South American team found a rhythm early, South Korea was found offsides three times in the first six minutes of the match. Eight minutes in, Vinícius Júnior scored for Brazil, which was quickly followed by a second goal by Neymar after Richarlison drew a foul right in the penalty area. By the end of the first half, Brazil had extended its lead to 4. South Korea scored in the second half to avoid a shutout, but it was not enough to keep Brazil from moving on.
Anyone out there reading who arose early enough Saturday morning to catch the beginning of the U.S. in the knockout round caught all they needed to see at Khalifa International Stadium in the first three minutes. A controlling, measured attack unlocked an auspicious moment just three minutes into the match. After a fortuitous bounce, Christian Pulisic found himself alone in front of rookie Dutch goalkeeper, Andries Noppert. Instead of driving it home, though, Pulisic’s shot went just off of his heel, giving Noppert an easy save and the Netherlands life. Eight minutes later and the Dutch scored. The Tulips would not let up on that wound until the Americans were left lifeless and wandering around the post-match field barefoot.
The irony of the match is that the young USMNT upstarts did look overmatched against a veteran, orange-clad Dutch team. They did, however, look like rookies compared to a team that knew how to control the pitch like clodhopping folk dancers on Tulip Day. Content to absorb early pressure from the U.S., the Dutch turned the tide with a full-field play, slicing up the pitch with over 20 passes before forward Memphis Depay sent a crossing strike past a defenseless, sprawling Matt Turner in goal. The rest of the match might as well have been a replay. The U.S. was able to put pressure on the Orangemen, but could not drive it home when it counted. And the Dutch were content to wait for an opening for a crosser before nailing it into the back of the net like it belonged there.
Despite the obvious talent on the USMNT, its dearth of quality opponents and experience on the international pitch was obvious throughout the 2022 World Cup. While the squad played quality defense and held their own against some of the best in the world, the technical skill and savvy required to score enough goals against quality opponents was not there. The next challenge the USMNT face is a lack of competition. There is little time for the national team to practice or gain experience against good global teams. While Africa, Europe, and South America have to tilt against star-studded national squads in continental tournaments, opportunities for the U.S. to play other talented nations are limited. This hemisphere only has the Gold Cup, but (with all due respect to the Caribbean and Central America), the U.S. and Mexico essentially share the trophy as the hemisphere’s two dominant squads. It’s hard to imagine how the U.S. can build the necessary dexterity and grit when the World Cup arrives in North America in 2026.
In Saturday’s second match of the day, we were treated to another game squad that just did not have enough oomph to overcome its talent and skill deficit. For much of the first half against Argentina, Australia was able to blunt the Argentine attack. But the Socceroos found out that these Albicelestes are almost inevitable in 2022. With Messi playing for immortality, one little error against the celestial being and you are toast.
Argentina struggled to find a rhythm until Messi found the ball on his trusty left foot inside Australia’s penalty area. Two touch passes back to Messi and La Pulga had the ball skipping past Australian goalkeeper Matt Ryan as easily as sliding a coin into a slot. The Argentine fans had Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium roaring like Zeus firing off thunderclaps from Olympus.
Though Argentina has always been a dangerous World Cup squad, it’s never quite coalesced around its transcendent star quite like this. With midfielder Enzo “The Metronome” Fernandez controlling the action at the center, Angel Di Maria covering Messi’s right and Rodrigo De Paul flanking him, Messi is covered from all sides. It will be fascinating to see if the Dutch defensive attack can pierce this offensive battering ram.
France limped into the Qatar World Cup 2022 ravaged by injury. The list of wounded includes Ballon d’Or winner and star striker Karim Benzema, star midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, and, falling just 13 minutes into the tournament, Bayern Munich defender Lucas Hernandez. This has been no matter so far for the French to understand that life is short and ugly and there is only one way to live while you are alive — to revel in fleeting beauty. For Les Bleus, this has come from the oldest and youngest players on the team.
Just after the 36-year-old Olivier Giroud drove home France’s first goal, he only had a short time to taste his slice of soccer history — his 52nd goal in a French jersey, making him the national team’s all-time top scorer over such celebrated names as Thierry Henry, Michel Platini, and Zinedine Zidane.
Just half an hour later, the superhuman who may one day overcome Giroud secured the match for the French at the 74th minute. After Kylian Mbappé, the 23-year-old Parisian phenomenon, scored his first goal, he added another in extra time just for good measure. Playing in only his second World Cup, Mbappé already has nine goals — more than Cristiano Ronaldo has ever achieved and the same amount as Lionel Messi, the aging Argentine superstar. The two countries might just be on a collision course to meet in an explosive finale. First, though, France will have to achieve victory over an ancient geographic rival: England.
Well, this one was predictable. The weekend’s least competitive match found a talented English squad against the African champs, Senegal. Unfortunately for the Senegalese, the team was missing Sadio Mane, its best player, along with several more walking wounded as it took the field against the English. High hopes for an emotionally-charged challenge were dashed after an initial burst.
Knowing it was short-footed, Senegal came out firing. Boulaye Dia split a pair of English defenders but the entry pass to him missed long. An intercepted pass led to a quick charge that Ismaïla Sarr nearly stuffed in. And at 32 minutes, English keeper Jordan Pickford made a quick stop with his left hand to stop Dia’s point-blank shot. From there, it was all England.
Harry Kane’s kick up to Jude Bellingham let Jordan Henderson get into the right position before a deft pass from Bellingham let Henderson put it home in the bottom left corner for a 1-0 lead. And just a few minutes later, the aforementioned Kane finally broke his 2022 goal drought with a backbreaker on a breakaway just before the end of the half.
An eventual 3-1 victory over Senegal sets up an all-time match against France set to kickoff next Saturday.
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