Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Thing of Real Beauty

photo by bobuvia PhotoRee

Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Argentina vs. Portugal
34,000 feet
Somewhere between New York and Florida, courtesy DirecTV and Continental Airlines

It's red, white and blue on display in Geneva, as Portugal enter in their familiar maroon, and Argy Bargy show up in the famous sky blue and white, the latter color matching the smattering of snow still on the pitch Wednesday evening in Switzerland for the international friendly.

The game opens as if poetry in motion, both sides showing majestic fluidity in attack, with Lionel Messi tiptoeing through the Portuguese defense like tulips, and Cristiano Ronaldo showcasing pace with the ball at his feet that makes him one of the game's most exciting and feared attackers. From the outset, both Argentina and Porutgal play breathtakingly beautiful one touch football, the ball pinging back-and-forth and side-to-side as the teams trade opening jabs. Both Di Maria and Ronaldo find the net in the opening twenty minutes, the game exploding into non-stop, end-to-end action. Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex must be wincing slightly to see their all-stars playing their hearts out for their respective countries, keeping fingers crossed that no one gets hurt, and wondering if by any means they could all slow it down just a bit and save some strength for the upcoming weekend's exertions.

The contest offers countrymen and neutrals a clear view of the world's best pure footballers, and Cristiano (he of the artfully coiffed, slicked back hair), and Lio (showcasing his two-day unshaven, gruff look) don't disappoint, the two men absolutely riveting to watch. Like great NFL running backs, there's very little side motion in their movement, only forward, broken field running and hurdling with the ball attached to their feet as if by super glue. These two are playing a different game than other mere mortals -- with the possible exception of Dimitar Berbatov --  both in terms of their goal output and sheer footballing brilliance, playing the game as it must have first been imagined by God.

Argentina are striving to re-fashion themselves as the Barcelona of international football, impossibly holding the ball until the last moment before finding the angled pass to release an attacker, while Portugal remind this viewer of the Manchester United team of a couple of years ago, playing with both strength and devastating pace on the counter-attack. By the time the two teams head for the break knotted at one, the fans can only gather their breath and hope for more of the same in the second half.

Fortunately, the game picks up right where it left off, as the two sides trade chance after chance: Cristiano missing a ridiculously brilliant, looping header off the cross-bar, and Messi batted aside by a diving Eduardo on a sharply inswinging free kick. By the 56th minute, though, the Seleccao are unlucky not to have taken the lead, as Almeida misses a wide open net -- stunning even himself that he's managed to miss from so close.

Nani and Ronaldo come off the pitch at the hour mark and Di Maria follows five minutes later (which actions beg the question: have Mourinho and Sir Alex asked the respective coaches to substitute their stars early?  As a United fan I find myself delighted that Nani has not played the full 90, with the Manchester derby upcoming this weekend.) as both sides bring on a raft of fresh legs in search of a winner.

That the winner doesn't immediately come is not for lack of trying, with Messi denied at point blank range near the 78 minute mark,  while at the other end Carlos Martins is just over the bar from distance a minute or two later. Most agonizing of all, Javier Pastore is cruelly rejected in the 84th minute by the cross bar on a sharp header off a free kick from deep in Portuguese territory.

Argentina are awarded a deserved penalty just as time expires, when Fabio Coentrao slices down a second Argentine attacker after narrowly escaping the referee's finger on his first tackle just a fraction of a second earlier.  As the sands run out of Portugal's hourglass, Lionel Messi seals the narrow victory from 12 paces with one of the slowest and softest penalties you'll ever see, young Lio trotting up to the spot as if deciding a schoolyard intramural match rather than a fiercely contested international friendly, and offering a thing of real beauty to decide the contest.  In the end, Argentina probably shaded the game by just thismuch, and Portugal must find themselves wondering how they didn't leave Switzerland with their pride and a draw intact.

This is farlieonfootie for February 10.

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