Another round-up from the World Cup in Russia that sees Brazil and Belgium make it to the quarter-finals, after beating Mexico and Japan on a beautiful day of football overshadowed by play acting from the world’s most expensive footballer.
I’m a big fan of the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR). Why have three people making the decisions when you can have a whole room of them making it while poring over video replays.
Like shit-stains inside UK toilets with low water marks – it makes sense.
Here are four specific circumstances where VAR comes into play:
1. Goals and offences leading up to goals.
2. Penalty decisions and offences leading up to penalty decisions.
3. Direct red card incidents.
4. Cases of mistaken identity.
VAR is effective.
The new approach has led to 27 penalties in Russia, more than at any other World Cup, and it will eradicate shirt pulling and manhandling in the penalty area.
But we are underusing the technology in one critical area.
In the game between Brazil and Mexico, we saw the world’s most expensive footballer blatantly cheat in an attempt to get his opponent sent off, and therefore create an edge for his side.
VAR saw it and did nothing.
It did nothing because, like the man who cheated, these forms of play acting have become a subconsciously acceptable part of the game. It’s no exaggeration to say that the footballers of the future are being programmed to behave in this way and to view ‘play-acting’ as acceptable.
But it’s not acceptable.
Brazil 2 v 0 Mexico
I wouldn’t say it was a doddle, but Brazil opened with a draw against Switzerland, before beating Costa Rica with two late goals, and Serbia in the final group game.
Mexico beat the Germans and South Korea before Sweden brought them down to earth with a thumping. Fortunately, South Korea had that famous night against Germany, allowing the Mexicans to sneak into the last 16.
But history didn’t bode well for the Mexicans who had been eliminated in the Round of 16 at every World Cup since 1994. Brazil, on the other hand, had made the quarter-finals in their six previous World Cup appearances.
There was a script, and it played out.
Mexico began the brightest in the Samara Arena. Brazil looked jittery. But the best chances still fell to the men in yellow. Neymar Jr carved out a beautiful opening, as did Gabriel Jesus, but Guillermo Ochoa was resplendent in goal.
Maybe the Mexicans ate too many burritos the night before because they were lethargic in a second half dominated by Brazil. Neymar began to be more influential, and in the 51st minute it was the Paris St Germain (PSG) ace who set Willian free on the left-hand side of the penalty area, and his cross come shot was put away by Brazil’s #10. It was Brazil’s 227th World Cup goal overtaking Germany as the festivals all-time leading goalscorers.
Mexico offered little in response, except a sweet shot from Carlos Vela that Alisson tipped over the bar. And then, with time running out, Tite replaced Philippe Coutinho with Roberto Firmino, and within three minutes, the Liverpool striker got on the end of a Neymar toe poke to seal the win.
Two Brazilian goals that brought out the best in Neymar.
Now for the worst.
Moments before he set up Firmino for the winning goal, the Brazilian forward was sitting on his arse on the sideline, protecting the ball, after yet another foul against him. Miguel Layun, who had been kicking Neymar all afternoon, walked over to the PSG ace to collect the ball and deliberately stepped on Neymar’s ankle.
The stamp was more Tom & Jerry than Quentin Tarantino, but the VARs would have seen it and should have construed it as violent conduct. There was no way Layun ‘accidentally’ stepped on his ankle. It was deliberate.
But Neymar should have also received his marching orders.
The way that he writhed around in agony, in what seemed like nothing more than a pinch, was despicable, and more alarming for me, natural. I do not doubt that his decision to play act was not a conscious one. It was instinctual. A decision made by his subconscious. An area of his brain trained to do this over years of watching others do the same without fear of reprisal.
The same happened during Uruguay’s win over Portugal. Luis Suarez goes up for a header. A Portuguese defender barges him in the back, and the Barcelona man goes down clutching his head when replays clearly show there was no contact.
Neymar is the most fouled man at the World Cup (23 times), but he is also the best having 23 shots, with 12 on target, and 16 chances created – more than any other player. All of which means he is an idol for our children, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to watch my kid play-acting in an Under 11’s match.
Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before VAR stamps this out of our game.
Belgium and Japan Clash in Epic Match
I came home late.
Japan was winning 2-0.
Another top team heading out of the competition, just as I like it.
The goals I missed both came early in the second half. Gaku Shibasaki sent Genki Haraguchi through on goal to score the opener three minutes into the second period. Four minutes later, and Takashi Innui smashed in a second from 25-yards.
Only North Korea (1966) and South Korea (2002) had ever reached the quarter-finals.
Was Japan about to make it #3?
On the 65th minute, I turn on the TV and Roberto Martinez is changing things. On comes Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli.
Five minutes later, after a spot of head tennis in the Japanese box, Jan Vertonghen gets Belgium back into the game with a 20-yard headed goal, the longest ever recorded in the competition.
21 minutes left.
I knew at that moment that Japan was doomed.
74 minutes on the clock and Eden Hazard brilliantly found space on the left. The ball went into the jukebox, and Fellaini was on hand to score their second hit.
Both teams bombed forward for the win.
And I was screaming at the TV for them both to chill out so I could enjoy another 30-minutes of football when Japan showed their naivety. The Blue Samurai sent too many players forward for a corner. Thibaut Courtois mopped it up and sent Kevin De Bruyne on a 60-yard dash upfield. The Man City man found Thomas Meunier in acres of space down the right flank. Meunier hit a low cross into the box, Romelu Lukaku stepped over the ball, and there was Chadli to score the winner with the penultimate kick of the game (the last kick would be Japan taking the kick-off).
It was brutal but showed the strength of teams at this World Cup. It was the ninth goal to come in the 90+ minute. There were only ten in this data range in the previous five tournaments combined.
“It was a tragedy,” said the Japanese coach after the game.
Yes, it was, I had to put my daughter to bed because there was no extra time.
Belgium faces Brazil in the quarter-finals on Friday night. The Brazilians are unbeaten in 15 games, Belgium hasn’t lost a game in their previous 23.
Only one can go through.
My money is on the Belgians after extra time and penalties.
Here’s what the bookies think.
Quarter Final Draw And Odds
Brazil v Belgium