Wednesday 7 November 2018

I need to talk nicely about Kevin now - Belgium 2 Brazil 1

I saw all of his brilliance last season and resented every second of it, but now I get to enjoy him for a while.

Kevin De Bruyne showed up every week on Match of the Day with performances even more breathtaking than the last, producing incredible touches that the most sycophantic of pundits would refer to as "ridiculous", or "frightening". Conor McNamara, BBC's answer to Peter Drury, was even forced to suspend all golf swing bantz with "Claridge" to laugh unabashedly at the outrageousness of it all. Martin Keown, meanwhile, mis-took De Bruyne's feet for paintbrushes during one of his less embarrassing analysis nights (love you anyway, Martin).

De Bruyne's x-ray vision combined with next level delivery, made even Raheem Sterling into a 20+ goals forward, and here was a playmaker looking under-priced at the £55 million he cost from Wolfsburg two years before, when such a fee captured attention. Only the dazzling adventures of Liverpool's Salah deprived him of adding the Footballer of The Year prize to the league and Carabao Cup winners medals last season.

So like everyone else, I saw it all from him, but because he was doing it all for Manchester City, or Mansour City, I couldn't get excited about it.

This summer though, he is helping Belgium in the World Cup, and I find that this allows me to appreciate him.  Belgium's progress in Russia isn't being funded by oil, nor is it run by people whose laws treat women like criminals when, to right-thinking people, they are victims. Belgium doesn't imprison journalists for doing their job, or LGBT+ for engaging in sexual activity. Belgium is a country of just 11 million, owing it's footballing achievements this summer to a self-made production line of players, which may turn out to be freakish in it's timing but is rightly celebrated.

So Kevin De Bruyne, it's nice to enjoy you for the first time! Nice to be free of the man-marking shackles of conscience and bitterness normally preventing me from adding my gushing voice to all the others'. Admittedly, the introduction to this World Cup blog a few weeks ago shows that my principles can be breached, and that, in De Bruyne's position, faced with the prospect of a quarter of a million weekly wage, I may also turn a blind eye to the barbaric rule of Abu Dhabi (that makes such a mockery of Pep Guardiola's yellow ribbon support of incarcerated Catalonians). Unable to progress beyond District trials as a boy, I was luckily never burdened with pondering the ethics behind a seven-figure annual take-home, so, without evidence to the contrary, I can claim the moral high ground on this subject. Everything happens for a reason, they say.

De Bruyne was involved to varying degrees in both of Belgium's goals tonight as they sprang a 2-0 lead on Brazil, every bit as surprising, at least to me, as Japan's identical cushion over the Belgians in the last round. In the 13th minute, De Bruyne set up Felliani, who won a corner that was then deflected past Alisson by the combined body parts of Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus (actions I haven't seen enough of in their Manchester City shirts). Just under twenty minutes later, De Bruyne took the ball from Lukaku and unleashed a 20 yarder past Alisson. Danny Murphy said he could "watch this goal all day", and there was certainly an aesthetic beauty to the strike, all the more satisfying for it not contributing to the Etihad brand.

For all that, I was a little worried. Brazil going out of a World Cup was taking away a very warm and cosy security blanket and letting in the icy breeze of concern that England would still be there without them. I'd watched Martinez and his staff celebrating the last-gasp Japan win, amused that they obviously hadn't remembered who they'd be playing next, but here they were, asking the five times champions to repeat the 44 year history-breaking feat they'd themselves achieved against Japan.

Brazil did give themselves a chance, sub Renato Augusto heading in a clipped Coutinho pass with just under 15 minutes of normal time left, and they were denied a penalty that Alan Shearer blamed on the  diving reputation of Neymar, even though it was Gabriel Jesus who'd been challenged. It was an interesting comment from Shearer (yes), I thought.  Glenn Hoddle had made Shearer England captain in 1996 partly because of the number of free kicks he would win in and around the penalty area as a big-name skipper (a less than purist theory, I'd say, and perhaps at odds with Hoddle's threat to quit the game in 1994 if a proposal to replace throw-ins with kick-ins was successfully lobbied) and yet here was the armband-less Neymar, arguably one of the top three famous players in the world, as good as disallowing goals for his own team thanks, perversely, to his own standing (pun intended, otherwise I'd have edited it out). At least Portugal's manager, Fernando Santos, had the good sense to promote Cristiano Ronaldo as captain, his main man winning two spot kicks at this tournament as well as that free kick against Spain. Indeed, Ronaldo's second goal in that match suggests that even goalkeepers can be affected by the hypnotic armband, the normally flawless David De Gea succumbing to it's powers in Kazan. No longer can we assume that De Gea was guilty of a "gross error of misjudgement", which was the explanation Hoddle used for another of his reasonings in 1998.

Neymar himself fired in a shot at the death, but Belgian goalie, Courtois, noting the lack of a 'C' on the striker's upper arm, was empowered to tip it over the bar. Courtois celebrated as if he'd scored, which is a habit goalkeepers have developed in recent times, and unnerves me as much as the scorer who doesn't celebrate against his old team because of some phoney show of respect (when I scored against my former team in Division 5 of the Berkhamsted Sunday League I restrained myself to running only half the length of the field).

So the Brazilians go out of the tournament at the same venue as other past winners, Germany and Argentina. So too, do we see the end of the remaining non-European contenders.

"Belgium are now the team to beat", said Rio Ferdinand after the match, while shaking his head disapprovingly at the number of cardboard cups littered around the stadium    

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