Thursday 16 August 2018

Last 16 - July 1st 2018

July 1st 2018

Spain v Russia: Croatia v Denmark

I'm with the family at a splash park during the hosts' match against Spain, and while the iplayer delay facility is once again my friend, nearby people are my enemy, sitting on picnic blankets shouting out scores. In these days of VAR-type technology, can we not all have a chip installed that diverts information you want to avoid hearing? Doesn't seem too much to ask.

By the time we're home, the 1-1 scoreline is a fair reflection on the spoiler comments I'd had to endure at the splash park. I'm unable to watch either of the goals as the iplayer delay function won't go back as far as the early minutes both were scored in, and I'm eleven into the second half when I start to watch, the score disturbingly unmoved.

What are you playing at Spain? I ask the telly You know I'm relying on you, but you've allowed a ten-man defence and repellent negativity - the iron gates behind the iron curtain - to keep your relentless possession at just that - relentless possession. You're my biggest hope of all the four teams playing today, in England's half of the draw, of stopping Southgate's lot from inflicting an unimaginable misery on me, but you get the lead and then you lose it. All you had to do was what you did in 2012, bore everyone to death with your tedious exemplary ability and not let the others kick the ball. But oh no, good old, reliable Gerard Pique gives away another penalty, too busy thinking about Shakira to remember that we have VAR here now, not like in 2010 in South Africa, when he got away with swinging a Chilean around in the penalty area like some human discus he was about to let fly.

So now Spain faced the tedious, exemplary defending of Russia, boring viewers to death with their drilled organisation and shape, perhaps a new style of Putin slaughter.

At least such a sporting cyanide would put us out of the misery concocted by Guy Mowbray's latest attention-seeking commentary. During cracks of lightning midway through the second half, BBC's leading commentator asked today's expert stooge, Martin Keown, if he was bothered by the thunder. Keown, who during his playing career took part in a chilling central defensive partnership with Andy Linighan for part of a season, unsurprisingly said no, to which Mowbray quipped "Get off my knee then!"

I don't know if it's validation for his comedy Mowbray wants, or a Rear of the Year nomination, but the most likely outcome of his David Brent-style vanity is a collection of co-commentators refusing to work with him. He's seemingly already been separated from Lawrenson, and judging by Murphy's tone in the Argentina game, he may have had a sneaky word with the Head. Generally Mowbray is alright, who doesn't (to my knowledge) make factual errors or is madly over-excitable. Since I started doing presentations at work to generous audiences, I appreciate how difficult a job broadcasters have, particularly in front of millions of viewers like me ready to criticise any little indiscretion, but there's such a thing as becoming too comfortable. Some of his outbursts are just a bit weird. The "get off my knee" thing seems just as odd as the time he commentated on a, well, thunderbolt Aguero goal at Sunderland and then lip-read the "Oh my God!"reaction from the Sunderland bench of forward Jodi Altidore, before  mimicking the player's American accent.

Scorer of the 2010 winning goal, Iniesta, comes off the bench in what he says will be his last international tournament, but in today's extra time, the big talking point takes us back to a despairing note in Spain's World Cup history, 8 years before the success in South Africa. It comes right at the end of the additional 30 minutes, when the ever-popular Sergio Ramos is denied a clear penalty, casting back memories (or at least my memory) to 2002 when the then (joint) hosts South Korea benefitted from scandalous refereeing to deprive Spain of a win and reach a penalty shoot-out, which itself contained further injustice in the Koreans favour. VAR was supposed to rectify these 'honest' howlers, but closer inspection on the VAR officials themselves may help explain why the five-strong panel of match observers were unable to spot the conclusive evidence today. I noted a slightly open door to the side of the room, that may or may not have contained five bound and gagged topless officials, jerking helplessly in chairs, while a set of five other men in ill-fitting green shirts, including two notable dopplegangers for Mo Salah and Jurgen Klopp but without the beards and glasses, studied the action. The Klopp figure even had that same manic grin!

Ramos scores in today's penalty shoot, to the sound of banging fists in the VAR room, but after Koke and Aspas fail to beat Ivor Ikanfeev, there would have been celebration, or at least angry finger or wrist gestures, towards the Spain captain as he sat on the turf contemplating only the consolation of four Champions League trophies and a La Liga to during his country's trophy 'drought'.

I am, however, not appeased by the prospect of only Russia standing in the way of England and the Final.

On the way to the splash park, I'd taken a birthday phone call from my Dad, a day late yes, but the fact I could accept the conversation and wasn't driving, showed that the festivities were still ongoing.

"Well, both France and Uruguay would beat England" he said to me, as if to ease my mind, but even his eternal powers couldn't overturn the reality of our country's favourable side of the draw, adding that they "should reach the semi-final".

"I think Brazil look back to their best" I said, almost to dismiss the prospect of England's worryingly certain progression through the tournament, by predicting a different winner.

"I think France look the best team" Dad replied.

That evening, though, I look for inspiration from Croatia, to a country of 5 million that I hope will provide effective security at the door of the Final. Sorry Gareth, can't let you in pal, read the sign on the door, no jeans, no trainers and ID required for permitted quality. Modric and Rakitic can be trusted to keep the riff-raff out.

So when Denmark take the lead in under a minute, I'm anxious, rubbing my forehead like Messi during the national anthem before that defeat to Croatia in fact, the Croatia who eventually bashed Argentina up 3-0, clinically exposing their weakness. Now they are losing to the Danes, who are one of only two nations England have beaten in a knockout game in their last five World Cups. Pinning my new faith in Denmark? Probably not.

Calm it, Stu, calm it. Mario Mandzukic equalises just three minutes after going behind, providing an equaliser after only four minutes of play. This reminds me of the last 16 tie between Argentina and Mexico in 2006, when I went to a pub loo just after the kick off and returned to see a score of 1-1 and a grinning friend.

Croatia do labour the point in fully restoring order. In the ITV studio, their ex player and manager, Slaven Bilic, talks of their "fragile mentality" in the knockout rounds, although Lee Dixon suggests that the amount of changes to the line up in their last match was having an effect on their momentum. One of the rested players who might not have ageed with Dixon is Champions League winner, Modric, who spends a lot of the second half hunched over with his hands on his knees.  

So perhaps Modric wasn't the wisest choice to take the penalty Croatia were awarded for a foul on him in the last 20 minutes. More pertinently, was the history I had with a Schmeichel ruining my cup dreams with a penalty save. Peter, who saved from Dennis Bergkamp near the end of extra time in the FA Cup semi final of 1999, now watched on as son Kasper, looked to thwart my hopes. We soon learn that the same aggressive, angry joy typical of Schmeichal senior in his playing days, is also evident in saluting his family's achievements.

So Croatia, like Spain, are taken to a shoot-out, with my confidence and their fitness draining away. Modric gets lucky with his spot kick this time and is visibly relieved that his nervy effort bounces in. Then the Croat goalie, Subasic saves three terrible penalties, leaving Rakitic to serenely stroke home and put his team into the next round against Russia.

The dream of avoiding the nightmare lives on.

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