The Golden Generation come of age: Germany defeat Messi and Argentina in the World Cup Final

Four years ago in South Africa, the footballing world looked in awe as a young German side slashed their way through the knockout stages of the World Cup; before succumbing to eventual champions Spain in the Semi-Finals. Then and there the seeds of future expectation were sown. The question on everyone’s lips: Just how good would this precocious and talented crop of players be the next time the World Cup rolled around in Brazil? The answer was provided emphatically last night in Rio De Janeiro. They would be the best. Germany are World Champions once more; Joachim Low’s men have come of age on the grandest of stages. Mario Gotze’s winner deep into extra time secured a 1-0 victory over Argentina, clinching a fourth World Cup for Germany, their first triumph in Football’s showpiece event for 24 years.

Yesterday evening’s showdown, the 20th ever Fifa World Cup Final; was dominated by one storyline: Lionel Messi’s quest for glory. Messi, almost certainly the greatest player of his generation is no longer considered a mere mortal, he is more a of a cult figure, a legend of the game. In order to cement his status alongside two of the greatest footballers to ever grace a pitch: Pele and Maradona, it was imperative that Messi followed in their footsteps; guiding his nation to World Cup glory. He knew it and the world knew it also, this was his golden opportunity; the chance to place a streak of silver lining on a magnificent career. Whilst it could not be disputed that Argentina’s chances hinged largely on Messi’s genius; Germany on the other hand were touted as the most well rounded team in the tournament. Sturdy in defence and potent in attack, Joachim Low’s Die Mannschaft resembled a flying death machine in the semi-finals; crushing the hosts Brazil by a jaw-dropping 7-1 score line and bringing a nation to its knees in the process. The stage was set for the final encounter, a ruthless and efficient German unit up against a battle hardened Argentine team, spearheaded by a footballing demi-God.

Right from the outset it was clear Germany would not be able to brush Argentina aside in the same manner as their South American neighbours. The Argentines had not conceded a single goal in the knockout phase of the tournament. Their back four, protected by Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano playing in a defensive midfield role, seemed up to the task of breaking down Germany’s fluid attacking play in the games early going. Argentina were content to sit back and soak up the German pressure before launching lightning fast counter-attacks, with Messi and Lavezzi sprinting full throttle at the German defence, looking to supply their lone striker Gonzalo Higuain. The German’s were rattled. For a period in the first half it seemed Alejandro Sabella had concocted the perfect foil to the German’s measured passing game. It was the men in blue who were able to carve out clearer cut goal scoring opportunities in the opening 30 minutes. Their failure to take these opportunities would prove fatal. Higuain, a man regarded as one of the world’s most clinical finishers found himself clean through on goal after an errant header backwards by Germany’s Toni Kroos. In acres of space with time on the ball, he dragged a pitiful effort wide of goal. Just before the half hour mark Higuain was in again. A terrific attacking move by Argentina saw Messi play a clever reverse pass out wide to Lavezzi, who whipped in a low cross that Higuain steered beyond Manuel Neuer in the German goal . Whilst the striker wheeled away to celebrate wildly the linesman raised his flag for offside. Pulses were racing and the favourites seemed to be reeling. Inevitably, Germany began to turn the tables. The introduction of Andre Schurrle to the game, on for Sami Khedira’s last minute replacement Christoph Kramer who failed to recover from a blow to the head early on the match, saw the Germans pick up the pace. They began to settle into a rhythm, their passing much more forceful and direct. The opening half concluded with Germany on the front foot. Left back Benedikt Howedes struck the post with a close range headed effort just before the whistle signalled for half time.

By the end of the first half it was clear we had a true final on our hands. Two closely matched teams battling tooth and nail for football’s most prestigious title, something had to give. 45 minutes gone and Messi had yet to make a telling contribution to the game. The man whose spectre loomed over the final as Christ the Reedemer hovers over the city of Rio De Janeiro, was running out of time to grab his slice of footballing immortality. He sensed it and made his move early on in the second half. In a manoeuvre we’ve seen him execute countless times before in a Barcelona shirt; the 27 year burst into the penalty area and attempted to roll a side footed finish into the corner of the net.  Agonizingly, he pulled his golden opportunity wide of the post. As the game wore on goalless and the tension increased, the crisp quality of the first half was replaced by bad-tempered, hard hitting Football. Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger was outstanding. The epitome of a box to box midfielder, he threw himself into challenge after challenge with reckless abandon and desire. Germany were up against an Argentine side renowned for their warrior like toughness; but were proving they were just as gritty and battle-hardened as their opponents. Jerome Boateng, a member of the German youth movement of four years earlier in South Africa did a wonderful job stifling the Argentine attack. He swarmed Messi and Aguero, hounding them down whenever they picked up the ball within range of the penalty area; an imposing figure, enjoying an imposing game.

After a tense second half in which neither side were able to dominate for an extended period, the game would move into extra time; the third consecutive final to do so. As the players stretched and hydrated, preparing for the most arduous 30 minute spell of football they would ever have to endure in their careers, one had to wonder, could Argentina do it again? Would the blue steel of the Albiceleste pull out another hard fought victory? The extra time period began at a frenetic pace; neither side seemed keen on the prospect of a penalty shootout. Germany started with intent; Andre Schurrle had a close range effort beaten away by Argentina’s goal keeper Romero. Up the other end Argentina fluffed their third and final glaring opportunity. Through on goal with German goalkeeper Maneul Neuer rushing out, second half substitute Rodrigo Polacio sent a lobbed effort high and wide. After a frantic start to extra time, the game became increasingly flaccid and fatigued, 22 pairs of tired legs looked set for a penalty shootout. That was until Germany’s golden moment finally arrived. Schurrle’s lung-bursting run down the left wing culminated in a cross into the box which was expertly controlled by Mario Gotze.  The 22 year old Bayern Munich man brought on for Miroslav Klose in the second half, then fired an accurate left footed volley beyond a helpless Romero and into the corner of the net. The resolve that had carried the South Americans to the final had finally been broken, they could resist no longer, trailing in a game for the first and only time in the tournament. Gotze’s goal sparked euphoric celebrations from the German bench; they knew they were within touching distance of a historic triumph. Before the final whistle blew; Messi would have one final say. The last meaningful kick of the game would fittingly fall to the world’s greatest player. Argentina had a free-kick 30 yards from goal. Messi’s final effort summed up his World Cup, and indeed his international career- promising, yet ultimately disappointing. He sent a dismal free kick high over the bar and seconds later the celebrations began. Germany, affectionately dubbed “Die Mannschaft” translated in English as “the team”, are not just a team, they are champions with the perfect blend of youth and experience. The golden generation from four years ago have come of age and it’s highly likely the sight of Germany lifting football’s greatest prizes becomes a familiar one.

Shootout Survivors: Argentina scrape into the World Cup Final on penalties

The South American Continent will have a representative in this Sunday’s World Cup Final. Much to the chagrin of the home nation, it is Argentina; not Brazil who will take to the field in the Estadio do Maracana to take on Germany for the most prestigious prize in Football. Argentina defeated The Netherlands 4-2 on penalties in Sao Paulo to book their place in The Final after an uneventful Semi-Final encounter.

Now this was more like your traditional World Cup Semi-Final, tight nervy and tense from start to finish. After yesterday’s frantic clash between Brazil and Germany, a return to footballing normality only seemed right. Whether one approves of their methods or not, their slow, plodding pace and over reliance on Lionel Messi; Argentina have been the perennial survivors of this World Cup. They do whatever it takes to win. The Albiceleste have not trailed any of their opponents for even a single minute in their seven outings at the tournament so far. Truth be told, they did not once look truly susceptible to falling behind yesterday evening either. It took the Dutch 99 minutes to muster a single attempt on target. The same side that decimated the reigning World Champions Spain 5-1 and rattled in 8 goals in their two opening games were completely blunted. Who said those Argentines are average? In a tight game that saw both teams stick to their shape rigidly; keen to stymie one another rather than go on the attack and risk being caught on the counter; Argentina’s back four were superb. Javier Mascherano in particular lunged in for a number of key tackles after bouncing back up from a nasty, concussive looking collision earlier on in the game. Even Martin Demichelis looked solid; as opposed the error prone and comedic centre half we see week in week out in a Manchester City shirt.

 ITV spent the pre-match portion of the game hyping the potential heroics of both sides’ star men: Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben. Ironically and almost inevitably, neither man stamped their mark on the game. Robben’s teasing runs lacked their usual incisiveness, and when finally clean through on goal in stoppage time, the 30 year old fluffed his lines. As for Messi, he was dire. The four time Ballon D’or winner spent the most important period of the game: extra time skulking around the turf in a manner befitting a lost looking Sunday League player, not the greatest Footballer in the World.

After a slightly less dreary period of Extra Time, the game would be decided by the terrible lottery that is a penalty shootout; a fitting conclusion considering the two sides had been impossible to separate in a mind-numbingly dull 120 minutes. Argentina had taken 8 shots to The Netherlands’ 7, each side had forced 4 corners and possession was split narrowly: 53% to 47% in favour of the Dutch. The Dutch might have fancied themselves having come through against plucky little Costa Rica via a shootout in the quarter-finals, but this time they were missing their trump card. Having run out of substitutions to make, Luis Van Gaal could not opt to bring on Tim Krul, the lanky Newcastle keepers’ heroics against Costa Rica have been well documented; Van Gaal lauded as a tactical genius for the switch. Instead the Dutch would have to turn to Jasper Cillessen to play the role of shootout hero, the Ajax shot stopper had never saved a penalty in his career heading into this evening’s semi-final. If you believe in signs there are none more ominous than that.

Netherlands began the shootout in the worst way possible, Aston Villa Centre Back Ron Vlaar who had been outstanding all game stepped forward, his tame effort down the middle was scooped up by Argentina’s much maligned keeper Sergio Romero. Messi then then coolly converted his spot kick to put his side into a lead they would not relinquish. Romero’s  second save in the shootout, denying Wesly Sneijder was simply outstanding; he hauled his frame into the top corner; keeping Sneijder out to all but quash the Dutch hopes of a comeback. It was then down to Maxi Rodriguez to do the honours, the most important kick of his career saw him send Argentina into their 4th World Cup Final; their first trip to the big dance since 1990. Messi and co celebrated jubilantly, but deep down they know they will need to find another dimension, and step it up a notch to defeat Germany in the final. Alejandro Sabella’s men no doubt watched the German’s ruthless 7-1 destruction of Brazil with trepidation. So far in the World Cup they’ve survived, finding a way to subdue all comers. They will do need to do more than survive on Sunday however, if they wish to clinch the World Cup trophy for the first time since 1986.

Grit, Guts and Glory: Djokovic wins a dramatic Wimbledon Final

Djoko wimbyStepping onto Centre Court for the Wimbledon Final this afternoon was a homecoming of sorts for the great Roger Federer, a seven time Champion at the All England Club. The 32 year old Swiss Maestro was back at the scene of his greatest triumphs, determined to turn back the clock one final time and become the oldest Wimbledon Champion since tennis’ open era began in 1969. Sadly, it was not to be. In a glorious five set duel, his opponent Novak Djokovic played the role of gallant gate crasher to perfection defeating his adversary 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4.

Djokovic and Federer, universally recognised as two of the greatest players ever to wield a racket engaged in an enthralling contest, from the first ball to the last. Djokovic, a speedy and athletic baseliner pitted his skills against Federer, a free flowing attacking genius. The first set culminated in a tie-break, which Federer snatched by 9 points to 7 after Djokovic dumped a backhand in the net. Federer had drawn first blood. Following the most testing 12 month period of his career in which the words “retirement” and “decline” swirled around his press conferences, the 32 year old legend had shown he was prepared to dig deep in what was fast becoming a dog fight.

Inevitably, Djokovic the most resilient competitor in tennis fought back in the second set. A fall by Djokovic at 0-1 mirrored a tumble he took earlier in the tournament against Gilles Simon in the third round, and foreshadowed the match’s end result. Djokovic had hit the deck but he would clamber off the turf and keep on fighting. He managed to break Federer’s serve at 1-1 and proceeded to take the second set 6-4. Disconcertingly for Federer he had not played badly at all, Djokovic was simply too consistent and too accurate from the backcourt. In extended baseline rallies he hardly missed; finding the corners of the court with startling accuracy.

Neither man would let up or surrender ground in the match’s pivotal third set, which once again headed for a tie-break. Djokovic, fuelled by the desire to avoid losing a fourth grand slam final in a row punctured Federer’s resolve, taking the breaker 7 points to 4. Daylight at last, he had finally pinned his old foe down, the end was in sight. The 27 year old Serb opened up a seemingly unassailable lead serving for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set. It was then time stood still. Was this 2014 or 2004 when Federer was in his pomp? Federer broke serve, pulling Djokovic out wide and sending him sprawling on the lawn before steering a forehand down the line into the open court for a winner. Vintage Federer, and he was only getting started. The Swiss fourth seed then saved a match point 4-5 down with an ace, that the hawk eye challenge system declared had caught the back end of the service line; landing in by a fraction. Djokovic was beginning to tighten up whilst Federer was in the ascendency; he reeled off two more games to take the fourth set 7-5 forcing the match into a decider.

For the first time since Federer escaped Andy Roddick in the longest Wimbledon Final on record in 2009, the most sought after prize in tennis would be decided in a fifth set. The match was now a titanic clash of wills; Djokovic was driven by the sting of failure, he could not fathom the prospect of losing in yet another grand slam final. Federer on the other hand was motivated by history, the greatest tennis player of all time looking to add to his record tally of 17 Slam titles. Federer’s season had been building up to this very moment, geared towards reclaiming a trophy he won on five consecutive occasions from 2003-08, was this to be his momentous homecoming? Early on in the set it looked to be the case; Federer who had only dropped serve once in the tournament heading into the final was playing his slashing brand of attacking tennis with assurance, moving forward to the net whenever possible. He held serve to love twice early on in the final set. However, Federer wasn’t confronted by a man willing to let him stride into the history books and secure title number eight; he was against Novak Djokovic the most resilient match player of his generation. Time and time again the Serb has found an unnatural second wind in matches from a losing position, and once more this would be the case. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 down the Swiss Legend cracked. The final point of the match saw him send a backhand into the net to give Djokovic a hard fought victory. Centre Court had just witnessed a marvellous display of grit and guts from two legends, but cruelly there could only be one winner.

The Young and the Reckless: Kyrgios the Kid stuns Nadal in an upset for the ages at Wimbledon

Young, brash and bold, 19 year old Australian Wild Card Nick Kyrgios sprung the upset of the decade this afternoon on Centre Court, defeating World Number One Rafael Nadal 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

Nick who?  Many of the 15,000 in attendance may have asked prior to the contest, they soon found out. Kyrgios announced his arrival amongst the tennis elite in stunning fashion, his performance at times as insolent as it was breathtaking. Nadal a 14 time Grand Slam Champion one of the most indomitable competitors tennis has ever seen, swept aside by a Wild Card, how could it be?  Young and reckless, Kyrgios showed no respect for Nadal’s achievements from the outset. The very first point set the tone for the contest- Kyrgios banged an ace. One of the 37 untouchable serves he would hit over the course of the afternoon. Kyrgios is a man with a big game and even bigger personality. Standing at a gangly 6 ft 4 and sporting a flashy haircut he yelled, fist pumped and celebrated with a level of exuberance Centre Court has not seen in years- youthful abandon at its finest. As the first set entered a tie-break it became increasingly clear Kyrgios had not come to lie down, take the plaudits and head home back to Canberra. He had come to win.

The Australian continued to serve emphatically, snatching the first set tie-break 7-5. It was okay, Nadal would come back, he was simply sizing his opponent up and coming to grips with the Australian’s game before mounting another herculean escape effort. At least that’s what the script read.

As he had done in his three previous matches at this year’s Championships, Nadal looked to rally from a set to love down. He finally made inroads on the 19 year old’s serve at 6-5 in the second set; breaking to level the match at 1 set apiece. If Kyrgios dropped his head, slumped his shoulders and succumbed to defeat at this point his efforts would have been lauded. After all in his first appearance at Wimbledon, ranked 144th in the World he had made the last 16, showing remarkable poise and fighting spirit for a man of his age- he saved an astonishing 9 match points in his victory over Richard Gasquet in the second round.

As the third set unfolded it looked as if Kyrgios was starting to tire. Nadal was beginning to impose his will on the match, running his opponent side to side more often in extended baseline exchanges whilst serving with confidence and precision. Rafa had momentum experience on his side, but as fate would have it, on this historic late afternoon experience and momentum went out the window. Krygios hung tough as the third set headed into another tie-break, he then proceeded to push forward and place himself on the cusp of a legendary victory, out serving and out hitting Nadal on his way to a 2 sets to 1 lead. With the end in sight, Kyrgios continued in the manner he had started the match- emphatic and aggressive. He pounded his way to a 5-3 4th set lead and now he would serve for one of the most momentous victories of all time. The 19 year old unfazed, insolent, and as brash as ever, arrived at match point and finished with you guessed it- another thunderous ace the exclamation mark on an otherworldly performance

Finally. At long last men’s tennis has another teenage phenom. The boyhood champion is a dying breed in a modern game based around power and physical fitness, Kyrgios may not be a champion yet; but he certainly played like one today. His booming serve and towering physique are reminiscent of the last ever teenager to win the Men’s Singles Title at Wimbledon: Boris Becker who marched to the title in 1985. Today wasn’t just a win for Kyrgios it was a victory for the ATP tour which is in desperate need of a shot in the arm and some fresh young talent at the top of the sport. Young and reckless Kyrgios has hit the fast forward button, the future starts now.