Portugal beat Czechs, Spain lose to Swiss in Nations League

Portugal's defender Diogo Dalot celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the UEFA Nations League league A Group 2 match with Czech Republic at the Fortuna Arena in Prague on Sept. 24, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 25 September 2022

Portugal beat Czechs, Spain lose to Swiss in Nations League

  • Spain failed to disturb the Swiss in attack and their defense conceded two goals on corner kicks featuring Swiss defender Manuel Akanji

BARCELONA, Spain: Diogo Dalot helped Portugal take control of its Nations League group by scoring his first two international goals in a 4-0 rout at the Czech Republic on Saturday.

Spain blew their lead of Group A2 after flopping in a 2-1 loss to Switzerland in front of their disappointed fans in Zaragoza.

Portugal moved two points ahead of Spain before the neighbors meet in Braga on Tuesday in a winner-take-all clash to see which advances to the tournament’s final four next June.

While his Portugal rolled in Prague, Cristiano Ronaldo had a rough night, first enduring a nasty blow to his face that made his nose bleed and required a small bandage. International soccer’s all-time leading scorer with 117 goals also committed a penalty that, fortunately for him, the Czechs failed to convert with the score 2-0.

Dalot put Portugal ahead in the 33rd minute when the right back scored from a pass by Rafael Leão.

Bruno Fernandes doubled the lead in first-half injury time moments before Ronaldo was guilty of the handball inside his own area. But Patrik Schick wasted the penalty kick by sending it onto the crossbar.

Dalot put the result beyond all doubt in the 52nd with a curling shot into the corner.

Ronaldo finished with an assist for Diogo Jota to take a fourth goal in the 82nd.

Spain flops

Luis Enrique, who last year guided Spain to the semifinals of the European Championship and the final of the Nations League, is known for making unpopular decisions and sticking to them.

And, once again, he surprised by starting Marco Asensio, who has been relegated to a substitute role at club Real Madrid, as a false nine while leaving pure strikers Álvaro Morata and newcomer Borja Iglesias on the bench.

Spain failed to disturb the Swiss in attack and their defense conceded two goals on corner kicks featuring Swiss defender Manuel Akanji.

Akanji struck with a great header in the 21st when he outjumped his marker and drove the ball off the turf and into the top corner of the net.

Asensio finally managed to pick apart Switzerland’s defense in the 55th when he dribbled past four players before laying off for Jordi Alba to rifle in the equalizer.

But Switzerland hit right back three minutes later when Akanji was left unchecked at the near post to use one touch to redirect a corner kick into the six-yard box where Breel Embolo nudged it over the line.

“They said that it was easy to beat Switzerland and we have seen that is not true in the least,” Luis Enrique said. “They stopped us from playing our game, and you have to add to that our very sloppy first half. We improved in the second half, showed more precision, but just when we scored, we conceded another goal from a corner. Now we have to go to Portugal and win.”

Iglesias and 20-year-old Nico Williams debuted for Spain as substitutes. Nico’s older brother and clubmate Iñaki Williams debuted for Ghana on Friday after he changed allegiance from Spain.

Switzerland hosts the Czech Republic in St. Gallen on Tuesday to decide which avoids relegation. Switzerland has two more points than the Czechs in last place.

Portugal, Spain and Switzerland will all play in the World Cup in November.

League B

Israel were promoted from Group B2 after it beat Albania 2-1 thanks to a goal by Tai Baribo in injury time.

It is all level between Serbia and Norway atop Group B4 ahead of their game in Olso to see which joins League A.

Erling Haaland scored for Norway but Slovenia fought back for a 2-1 home win, while Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic netted a hat trick to lead a 4-1 victory over Sweden in Belgrade.

Scotland remained in charge of Group B1 after edging Ireland 2-1 in Glasgow. Ukraine is two points behind after routing Armenia 5-0 before it plays the Scots in Krakow.

League C

Greece earned promotion from Group C2 despite losing to Cyprus 1-0 thanks to Northern Ireland’s 2-1 comeback win over Kosovo.


Senegal prepared for the World Cup by beating Bolivia 2-0 in a friendly in Orleans, France.

World Cup braces for quarter-finals as Spain sack coach

Updated 08 December 2022

World Cup braces for quarter-finals as Spain sack coach

  • A blockbuster set of quarter-finals gets under way on Friday when five-time champions Brazil face 2018 runners-up Croatia
  • On Saturday, Morocco will carry the flag for African football in their quarter-final clash with Portugal

DOHA: Brazil were gearing up for a showdown with Croatia while Argentina prepared to face the Netherlands as anticipation mounted Thursday on the eve of the World Cup quarter-finals.
After three weeks of pulsating action, just eight teams are left standing as the 32-nation tournament heads into the final rounds of knockout competition after a two-day break.
A blockbuster set of quarter-finals gets under way on Friday when five-time champions Brazil face 2018 runners-up Croatia.
That clash is the appetiser for another heavyweight World Cup collision between Lionel Messi’s Argentina and three-time losing finalists the Netherlands.
On Saturday, Morocco will carry the flag for African football in their quarter-final clash with Portugal before holders France face England in an eagerly anticipated showdown.
Wins for Argentina and Brazil on Friday would set up a titanic semifinal between the two South American heavyweights.
For now though Brazil are looking no further than Friday’s assignment against Croatia at the Education City Stadium in Doha.
“They have individual quality and collective quality as well as a resilience and persistence,” Brazil coach Tite said of Croatia.
“We are aware of their virtues but my focus is on maintaining our standards and whoever plays best will go through.”
Croatia captain Luka Modric said Thursday that his side were determined to progress beyond the last eight.
“We did a great thing by going to the quarter-finals, but regardless of that we would like to do more,” the Real Madrid midfielder said.
“We have to play our best match. And if we do that we have a chance of winning.”
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is optimistic that Angel Di Maria and Rodrigo De Paul will be available for his side’s clash against the Netherlands after injury issues.
His opposite number, Louis van Gaal, back in charge of the Dutch for a third spell, said his team would have to step up a gear to compete with the South American side, who beat them on penalties in the 2014 semifinal in Brazil.
“The tournament is actually starting tomorrow for real for us, although of course I don’t want to downplay the importance of other countries we were able to beat,” he said.
“But Argentina and Brazil, who we will possibly play in the next round, are quite different to the teams we beat in the group stage and last 16.”
On Saturday, all eyes will be on the battle between France and England at the Al-Bayt Stadium, the Bedouin tent-inspired structure located in the desert outside Doha.
England said Thursday that forward Raheem Sterling is set to return to the squad after initially leaving the team’s World Cup base following a break-in at his family home.
Sterling did not feature in England’s squad for the 3-0 last-16 win against Senegal and it would be a major surprise if the 28-year-old starts against France.
In Saturday’s other quarter-final, buoyant Portugal will be looking to end Morocco’s fairytale run to the last eight.
Portugal produced one of the most scintillating displays of the tournament by dismantling Switzerland 6-1 in the last 16 after coach Fernando Santos opted to drop Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo’s replacement, 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos, fired a brilliant hat-trick as Portugal ran riot.
According to reports in Portugal, Santos’s bombshell decision to drop Ronaldo prompted the 37-year-old superstar to threaten to walk out of the team camp.
But Ronaldo took to social media to stress the squad was rock solid after the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) issued a statement denying the reported bust-up with the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star.
“It’s a group too united to be broken by outside forces,” said Ronaldo.
“A nation too courageous to let itself be frightened by any adversary. A team in the truest sense of the word, which will fight for the dream until the end.”
Elsewhere on Thursday, Spanish football authorities dismissed coach Luis Enrique following the team’s shock elimination against Morocco, naming under-21s boss Luis de la Fuente as his replacement.
“Both the president, Luis Rubiales, and the sporting director, Jose Francisco Molina, have told the coach their decision,” the Spanish federation (RFEF) said in a statement.

Maguire mockery is ‘undeserved’ says England’s Phillips

Updated 08 December 2022

Maguire mockery is ‘undeserved’ says England’s Phillips

  • Manchester United defender Maguire has started just three games in the Premier League this season
  • Phillips said Thursday he believes much of the Maguire mockery is wrong

DOHA: England midfielder Kalvin Phillips has backed team-mate Harry Maguire as the much-maligned center-half prepares for the ultimate World Cup quarter-final test against France on Saturday.
Manchester United defender Maguire has started just three games in the Premier League this season due to a combination of injury and the arrival of Argentine Lisandro Martinez, but has been solid so far for England in Qatar, where he has started every game.
It marks a stark turnaround in fortunes for Maguire, who became the butt of many jokes on social media after a bad run of form last season.
Phillips said Thursday he believes much of the Maguire mockery is wrong.
“I know Harry Maguire has not played as much football this season as he probably would have liked this season and he does get a lot of stick, which I think is very undeserved,” Phillips told a news conference.
“I think he’s a top professional and a great footballer and all you have to do is watch England in major tournaments and when he plays for Manchester United, I think, he’s one of the best defenders and I think for England he’s been one of the top defenders for a long time and especially in tournament level,” he added.
Phillips feels Maguire, who is up against France’s record goalscorer Olivier Giroud on Saturday, is a player that England can rely on.
“He’s always been that player that when we’ve got set pieces or when we need to block or when anybody needs to make a challenge, he’s always the first one to do it.
“And he’s always the first one to get his head to the ball. Obviously, he’s scored some very important goals as well,” he said.
“I think a lot of people...because, he’s been obviously mocked quite a lot the past few years, I think he’s just the first one they go to if anything bad happened in the England team, he’d be the first one for anything to be said about.
“It’s very undeserved. And, like I said, I think if you look at the major tournaments he’s played in and how well he’s done then, you can’t really mock him because he’s been unbelievable,” Phillips added.
The Manchester City midfielder also had plenty of praise for his team-mate and Maguire’s central defensive partner John Stones.
“I believe that John is one of the best center-halves in the world right now.
“I’m not just saying that because he’s with England or he’s my friend or plays for Manchester City. I genuinely believe that — he is one of the best center halves in the game at this moment in time. He’s very composed on the ball, one of the best central defenders you could have distributing the ball.
“His partnership with Harry is an amazing partnership as well — they understand each other so well and feed off each other, help each other out. As of now, it’s probably the best center-half partnership in the World Cup“

Messi resumes World Cup quest as Argentina play Netherlands

Updated 08 December 2022

Messi resumes World Cup quest as Argentina play Netherlands

  • The quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday has all the ingredients of a classic
  • The seven-time world player of the year, Messi, is three wins away from achieving his ultimate dream

DOHA: Lionel Messi up against Virgil van Dijk. The youngest coach at the World Cup taking on the oldest. South America versus Europe. A back catalog of famous meetings.
The quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday has all the ingredients of a classic.
And the possibility of it being Messi’s final game on soccer’s biggest stage just adds to the anticipation.
The seven-time world player of the year is three wins away from achieving his ultimate dream but he has two people, in particular, blocking his path.
First, the not inconsiderable frame of Van Dijk, who has been one of the world’s best defenders over the past five years. If there’s anyone able to stop Messi on one of his trademark dribbles, it is the graceful Liverpool center back who combines pace with a great reading of the game.
And then there’s Louis van Gaal, the wily tactician who is 71, has recently undergone successful treatment for prostate cancer, and is now plotting to win the World Cup in perhaps the final job of his 26-year coaching career.
Van Gaal, who has long been one of the most charismatic characters in soccer, is approaching this task with a lot of fun — even on the eve of one of the biggest matches of his career.
On Thursday, he was told that Angel Di Maria, who plays for Argentina, thinks he is the worst coach he has ever played under following their time together at Manchester United in 2014-15.
Van Gaal said it was a pity Di Maria felt this way — “he is one of the few players to have said that,” he remarked, “as usually it is the other way round” — and added he once had a falling-out with Netherlands captain Memphis Depay, who was sitting next to him.
“Now we kiss each other,” Van Gaal said, leaning toward Depay with his arms out.
Van Gaal was also asked how he was planning to stop Messi — a question for which many coaches down the years have failed to come up with an answer.
“It’d be pretty stupid to reveal your own tactics,” he said, smiling. “But it’s not that difficult to come up with any answer. You could have come up with an answer yourself. You may want to block and close the passing lines. Am I right, Memphis?“
As for his Argentina counterpart, the 44-year-old Lionel Scaloni is a comparative novice after taking charge of his country in 2018 for his first senior coaching role. Still, he has already led Argentina to the Copa America title last year — the country’s first major trophy since 1993 — and has managed to steady his team after a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening group game.
While Van Gaal was predicting a tight match that will be settled by a “decisive moment,” Scaloni said it will be a “beautiful game because we are talking about two national teams willing to attack but who can also defend.”
It’s set to be a clash of styles between two of soccer’s historic powerhouses, with Argentina — a two-time champion — preferring to play a possession game and the Dutch — three times a beaten finalist — now typically playing on the counterattack under Van Gaal.
They have met in some high-profile World Cup games, none bigger than the 1978 final won by Argentina on home soil. There was also a last-16 match in 1998, won by the Netherlands thanks to a wonderful 90th-minute goal by Dennis Bergkamp, and then a penalty-shootout win by Argentina in the semifinals in 2014.
Messi played in that game and was kept relatively quiet by a team also coached by Van Gaal. Eight years later, Messi is still Argentina’s star player and put in his best performance in this World Cup in the 2-1 win over Australia in the round of 16.
“The tournament is starting tomorrow for us, for real,” Van Gaal said. “Although I don’t want to downplay the importance of the other countries we have beaten, Argentina and then potentially Brazil in the next round are different countries than those we played up to now.”
Scaloni was pressed on the fitness of midfielder Rodrigo De Paul, who might be a doubt according to some reports in the Argentine media, but gave little away.

Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ under attack again after World Cup loss

Updated 08 December 2022

Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ under attack again after World Cup loss

  • “A lot of possession and not enough shots,” the sports daily AS said on its front page
  • “Spain clearly dominates but can’t get the goal to advance,” the newspaper Sport said

DOHA: The Morocco players fell back on defense and patiently watched as Spain kept passing the ball around midfield during their round of 16 match at the World Cup.
Side to side, from one Spanish player to another. Pass after pass, Spain tried to find an opening through the Moroccan defense, but the Moroccans stayed committed, unwavering, patiently waiting with 11 men behind the ball in front of their goal.
The traditional “tiki-taka” ball-possession style allowed Spain to keep the ball during most of the match Tuesday, but not to get the goals they needed to keep their World Cup campaign alive, and the team lost 3-0 in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time to end their World Cup campaign.
It was the third time Spain failed to make it past the last 16 at the World Cup after winning their lone title in 2010, when Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were the leaders of the ball-possession style that amazed the soccer world.
Spain’s “tiki-taka” clearly hasn’t produced the results it once did, not on the international level or the club level with Barcelona, which was where it all started. Barcelona haven’t won a Champions League since 2015, and were eliminated in the group stage of the top European club competition the last two seasons after Lionel Messi left and signed with Paris Saint-Germain.
The recent failures have led to some to questions about whether it’s time for a philosophical overhaul of Spanish soccer, or if it’s just a matter of adjusting the style to modern days or finding the right players to make it work again.
It’s been a while since Spain lost Xavi and Iniesta, key elements that made the “tiki-taka” thrive, and they haven’t had a top-notch striker since Fernando Torres and David Villa, who were key to help transform ball possession into goals when La Roja won their back-to-back European Championships and the World Cup more than a decade ago. This year, Spain had only one true striker in their squad, Álvaro Morata, who is far from being considered a finisher like Torres and Villa.
It looked like Spain were going to make the “tiki-taka” work again in Qatar after youngsters Pedri and Gavi led the team to a resounding 7-0 opening win over Costa Rica, when La Roja completed a record 1,003 passes for a 90-minute game and finished with 75 percent of ball possession with 17 attempts against zero by Costa Rica.
But La Roja couldn’t win again after that, and they scored only two more goals in their next three matches. The team left the tournament with the most passes completed, with an average of 847 per game.
It didn’t take long for the criticism to start pouring in back home.
“A lot of possession and not enough shots,” the sports daily AS said on its front page.
“Spain clearly dominates but can’t get the goal to advance,” the newspaper Sport said.
Opponents have clearly found ways to keep the “tiki-taka” from working.
“We knew we were not going to have a lot of possession and we were not afraid of that,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said after his team’s win over Spain. “I looked at the last 20 games and Spain generally speaking had 70 percent of possession in those games. So I accepted that.”
Spain had 68 percent of possession and completed 967 passes Tuesday, but made only one attempt on target, two fewer than Morocco with their strategy that relied solely on counterattacks.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Regragui said. “We would have to be extremely well organized. The defense and our midfielders and attackers worked very hard to make sure that they didn’t have those angles for the passes.”
The strategy worked to perfection.
One of the last times Spain tried to move away from the “tiki-taka” was with coach Julen Lopetegui before the 2018 World Cup. Spain still tried to control possession, but they were more direct when attacking. The team went to Russia with an impressive unbeaten streak, but Lopetegui was fired just days before the team’s debut after accepting a job with Real Madrid without telling Spanish soccer federation officials. Spain were eliminated in a penalty shootout against host Russia in the round of 16.
Since 2010, Spain have won only three of their last 11 World Cup matches, and the elimination in Qatar on Tuesday led the federation to replace coach Luis Enrique with Luis de la Fuente, Spain’s under-21 coach.
Luis Enrique had said his players executed his “idea of football to perfection” despite the elimination, and with De la Fuente in charge, an overhaul to Spanish soccer wasn’t expected.
More “tiki-taka” is likely coming for La Roja.

Portugal stepping out of Ronaldo’s long shadow at World Cup

Updated 08 December 2022

Portugal stepping out of Ronaldo’s long shadow at World Cup

  • A future without the country’s greatest ever player could be a daunting prospect to the up-and-coming generation of Portugal internationals

DOHA: To Bruno Fernandes, World Cup teammate Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous athlete in sports.
Joao Felix has described Ronaldo as “irreplaceable.”
Gonçalo Ramos, Portugal’s new 21-year-old star, has never known his national team without Ronaldo involved in it.
A future without the country’s greatest ever player could be a daunting prospect to the up-and-coming generation of Portugal internationals.
They aren’t showing it at the World Cup.
In fact, they showed they might even be liberated by stepping out of Ronaldo’s long shadow given the way Portugal demolished Switzerland 6-1 in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
Turns out there is life after the five-time world player of the year, even if that is hard for some to imagine.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos wanted a team “playing with a lot of fluidity” against Switzerland and that invariably meant leaving the 37-year-old Ronaldo — the player with more goals (118) than anyone in men’s international football — on the bench. It was a big call and it couldn’t have gone better, at least against Switzerland.
It’s a call that Erik ten Hag has made at Manchester United this season, preferring to have more mobile players in his front four than an undoubted goal machine whose movement is no longer what it was.
It took until the round of 16 for Santos to make that move at the World Cup, with his convictions strengthened by his obvious unhappiness at Ronaldo’s attitude after being substituted in the group game against South Korea.
The Portuguese football federation insisted Thursday that Ronaldo was dedicated to the team, saying he had built up a “unique track record every day” of service for his country and had an “unquestionable degree of commitment to the national team.”
That won’t necessarily guarantee him starts in the future.
Against Switzerland, Ramos — who came in for Ronaldo, to the shock of many, and scored a hat trick on his debut — stretched the opposition defense more than Ronaldo typically does. It gave Felix, playing just behind Ramos, more space to work in and he produced one of his best performances for Portugal.
It couldn’t be further from the Felix that seems so constrained under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, working as hard on his defensive discipline and keeping team shape as what he offers in attack.
Santos went through the attributes of the three strikers in his squad — Ronaldo, Ramos and Andre Silva — and said that while Ronaldo is a player “who is more fixed and plays in a more determined area,” Ramos is “more dynamic.”
So dropping Ronaldo requires a shift in game plan. It might have worked against Switzerland, but will it work against Morocco?
Looking to become the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals, Morocco is expected to defend deep against Portugal and play on the counterattack. Santos has to make the call whether this is more of a game for Ronaldo — one of football’s greatest ever players — or to stick with the player who just had the game of his life.
It’s not a bad situation to be in, and leaves Portugal as a very dangerous proposition either way.