VAR is still causing controversy, but it is time we get on board

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during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Iran and Spain at Kazan Arena on June 20, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Saeid Ezatolahi wheeled away in delight. He would soon be joined by his teammates on the pitch and those still wearing bibs who’d occupied the dugout. The Rostov midfielder thought he had just dragged Iran level against Spain, taking them one step closer to the last-16, in their Group B clash.

 

Ezatolahi offered a prayer and kissed the turf. But his moment was to turn sour. Referee Andres Cunha placed his hand in the air, then his finger to his ear, listening intently. Spanish players surrounded the Uruguayan official claiming for a handball – claiming for anything to spare their blushes.

 

Two minutes passed, which must have felt like an age to those in white, eventually the ref waved the goal off as Ezatolahi had drifted half a yard offside after the ball had taken a flick off an Iranian head before he met it to beat David De Gea.

 

Spain retained their slender advantage and the landscape of the group was changed in the 2010 World Champion’s favour, whereas moments earlier it had shifted to one were Fernando Hierro’s side would have needed to get something from Morocco in their last group game – no gimme after their valiant showing against Portugal earlier in the day.

 

The Video Assistant Referee is yet to appease many watching the World Cup, but there is evidence that the highly controversial technology is working. Antoine Griezmann created a small part of history against Australia when he scored the first goal after a VAR decision. The Atletico forward was challenged by Josh Risdon. Fittingly, it was Cunha who also officiated that match. He allowed play to go on for a short while before receiving word that the challenge of the long time Barcelona target needed to be reviewed. A penalty was given. Girezmann dispatched it comfortably.

 

Of course, VAR is still open to ones interpretation of “clear and obvious”, Phil Neville and Jermaine Jenas railed against the technology on the BBC after the Group C clash – insisting the officials had still come to the wrong conclusion.

 

“I Don’t like VAR, I haven’t don’t from day one.” Said England Women manager Neville. “It has to be clear and obvious. We have three different opinions in the studio so it’s not clear.”

 

Former England international Jenas added: “That is one that shouldn’t even be sent for review. The referee made his decision by not giving the penalty. It was not a clear and obvious mistake. That’s where VAR can come off on the wrong side of things.”

 

Indeed, Jenas and Neville are correct, the judgement is still made by humans – prone to error even after looking at an incident more than once and at several angles. The system is not definitive like goal-line technology. It’s still subjective, still leaving the door ajar for people to interpret it however they like.

 

But it has received praise from a manager at the tournament, a manger whose side were on the wrong end of a VAR decision. South Korea played Sweden in their opening Group F contest.

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Viktor Claesson went down under a challenge from Kim Min-woo. Referee Joel Aguilar initially allowed play to run, with South Korea on a promising counter attack, after being consulted by those in the VAR booth the Salvadoran official pointed to the spot and Andreas Granqvist converted the penalty.

 

Afterwards, South Korea coach Shin Tae-yong said: “We could say it was regrettable, but he was tackled between his legs. We do agree that it was a good call.” Tae-yong’s dignified response should be appreciated when it would have been easier to jump on the bandwagon and insist that VAR has no place in football.

 

The resistance VAR has been met with is of no surprise. Football was equally as reticent to fully embrace goal-line technology when the original ideas were pitched: would it slow the game down? Would it take away from that moment of spontaneity from the goal scoring team? Regardless of the questions, one overarching question remained: Do we want the decision to be correct? Ultimately, the answer is “yes”.

 

Is VAR perfect? Absolutely not. But is it improving and will it improve in the future? Undoubtedly. Marcus Rashford said as much after England’s 2-1 triumph over Tunisia in which Harry Kane was subject to some rough treatment in the penalty area. The Tottenham striker received little sympathy from the officials and no action was taken against the Tunisians grappling with the England captain.

 

“There are certainly some decisions where they have to at least check to see if it is a penalty or not.” Said the Manchester United forward,

 

“It does need improving and I think it will improve over time. The idea of bringing VAR into the game is spot on but there is something to improve on.”

 

Rashford remains openminded about the system, as should we all. Football detests patience with a passion, in a microwave existence football has forgotten the delights of slow cooking their innovations.

 

Like managers, players and executives, the VAR system needs time to succeed.

 

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Morocco vs Portugal match report

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Cristiano Ronaldo added yet another record to his ever-growing collection and Morocco became the first team officially eliminated from the 2018 World Cup as they lost 1-0 to Portugal in Moscow.

Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game with a clinical diving header with just four minutes on the clock. The Real Madrid forward scored his 85th international goal, making him Europe’s all-time top international goal scorer overtaking another Madrid great, Ferenc Puskas, who scored 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Puskas’ record had stood for 62 years before the 33-year-old took his goal tally for the tournament to four as the former Manchester United winger looks to add the World Cup, as well as the competition’s Golden Boot, to his extensive trophy cabinet.

Outside of the goal the current European Champions offered very little in attacking endeavour, that was left to their African opposition. After being spellbinding in the 3-3 draw against Spain in their group opener, they were much more lethargic against a feisty side. Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat were at the heart of the Moroccan’s creativity.

The latter will be haunting Raphael Guerreiro’s dreams for days to come after the Portugal left-back was turned inside out on his flank by the Watford winger. Morocco played with intent, unfazed by the European Champions.

The African outfit were much the better team in the first half and have every right to feel aggrieved that their final group match will be contested with little more than pride on the line.

Newly signed Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio was forced into action several times, including a contender for save of the tournament when he clawed away a Younes Belhanda header in the second half.

Ronaldo cut an isolated figure up front. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was starved of service, waving his arms in frustration at the lack of creativity behind him. It needn’t matter in the end as Morocco spurned the chances they created, captain Mehdi Benatia wasted two, identical, glorious chances when a loose ball fell to him eight yards out, but he could only trash the efforts high over Patricio’s crossbar.

The Atlas Lions never ran out of hope or effort but eventually ran out of ideas. Their players dejected on the Luzhniki Stadium turf. The absence of a true centre forward ultimately costing them. Perhaps they are the most unfortunate team in Russia after losing in heartbreaking fashion to Iran, Aziz Bouhaddouz putting through his own net in the fifth minute of injury time.

Portugal all but confirmed their place in the round of 16, but the Jekyll and Hyde nature of it will be a cause of concern for Fernando Santos. No matter the nature of the performance the Team of the Five will not care if they are a team of one and Cristiano Ronaldo has to drag them to add the World Cup to their European Championship triumph.

Spain vs Portugal match report

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Group stage clashes between two powerhouse teams expected to go far can often lead to dull affairs. Both sides content to play out a cagey encounter as they feel their way into the tournament and perhaps meet each other further down the road.

On this night however, it was left to Spain and Portugal to play out a six-goal thriller in Sochi.

You could be forgiven if you forgot that there was still a game of football to be played with all the hoopla surrounding 2010 World Cup winners was about their decision to sack Julen Lopetegui and replace him with Fernando Hierro on the eve of the tournament.

Regardless of who’s side you are on in the fight between club and country, the Spanish Football Federation made their stance clear; that they would be bullied by Spain’s two biggest clubs no longer.

On the field, Portugal rescued a deserved draw and helped bring the World Cup to life in a pulsating 3-3 stalemate inside the Fisht Olympic Stadium.

Cristiano Ronaldo, always one to leave his mark on any football match, was at his ruthless best, scoring a hattrick. Meanwhile, for Spain, Diego Costa was also at his optimum, bagging a brace, and Nacho added a thunderous third while Isco sprinkled the occasion with stardust.

Ronaldo began proceedings with a third minute penalty after he took a tumble following a Nacho challenge.

Diego Costa equalised with a remarkable show of strength and determination. Sergio Busquets sent a long ball into his path, Costa won an aerial battle with Pepe before bearing down on goal and shimmying past Jose Fonte and Raphael Guerreiro. He then let loose with a low drive into the bottom corner, beating Rui Patricio.

Isco was a wristband buzz away from giving his country the lead after sending a crashing drive off the crossbar and bouncing on the line. The Real Madrid midfielder protested only to be told by referee Gianluca Rocchi the ball did not cross the line, gesturing to his watch.

Spain’s playmaker was menacing in the first half effortlessly drifting between Portugal’s midfield and defence and playing smart passes to open opportunities for himself and his teammates.

On stroke of half time the Real Madrid forward nudged the European Champions ahead once more when his rather tame shot squirmed past David De Gea in the Spanish goal. For a goalkeeper in the conversation as being the best in the world the moment was one more befitting of his first season with Manchester United than the unstoppable force he has since become.

Shortly after half time the game jolted back into life and Costa brought Spain level once more. A goal that is not usually in the playbook of La Roja, David Silva and Isco wonderfully executed a free-kick and clipped a smart ball to the back post. Serigo Busquets headed the ball back across goal for the former Chelsea striker to bundle into the back of the net and even the game at two apiece.

Just before the hour Nacho made amends for his error which gave Portugal the penalty. Once more it was the intricate play of Isco and David Silva. The cross came to nothing and a seemingly innocuous clearance came bouncing towards the Real Madrid defender who send a right-footed rocket from 22 yards crashing into the post before nestling into the bottom corner.

In a clash featuring some of the best strikers of a ball in the world it was a hit that any of those would have been proud of.

While chances have been at a premium in the early games of the World Cup there were no such problems in this contest. Andreas Iniesta flashed an effort agonisingly wide, which was not befitting of the majestic build up play which led to the chance.

Costa could have had his hattrick with 20 minutes left but scuffed his shot wide of the target.

The night was drawing to an exhausting close but there was still time for Ronaldo to have the final say on the game, like he has done with so many before. Brought down 25 yards away from the goal the five-time Ballon d’Or winner pulled his shorts up to reveal the powerful legs tasked with the responsibility of earning a well-deserved point.

A vintage run up followed before he delicately curled the ball into De Gea’s net. The Spanish shot stopper did not even attempt to save the effort and the Portugal captain wheeled away knowing he had the final word yet again.

Uruguay vs Egypt match report

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‘Slow burner’ would be the diplomatic way to describe the ninety minutes of arduous work, huffing and puffing before Uruguay’s quality eventually showed in the closing moments as they beat Egypt 1-0 in Group A of the 2018 World Cup.

Truth be told, the South Americans never found their rhythm, leaving it to Jose Maria Gimenez to save their blushes. He rose high to meet a Carlos Sanchez free-kick in the 89th minute, kickstarting their campaign.

The moments of quality where fleeting, the best coming in the dying embers of the game when Edinson Cavani twice threatened the break the Egyptian hearts – first with a wicked volley from the edge of penalty area which required a marvellous save from Mohamed El-Shenawy, and shortly after with a powerful free-kick from similar range which rattled the post.

Moments after it would be heartbreak for the North African outfit when Gimenez finally broke down their resistance.

Mohamed Salah was deemed fit, but only fit enough for the bench – that did not stop the Egyptian supporters going wild whenever his face adorned the big screen.

While the current Liverpool goal machine sat on the bench, the former one toiled on the pitch. Luis Suarez looked out of sorts in, missing a golden opportunity from two yards out, his first touch eluding him, and his often-relentless energy found wanting.

La Celeste were slow and predictable for most of the first half, if they are to live up to the tag of ‘dark horses’ for the tournament they will have to elevate their performance for when they take on Saudi Arabia in Rostov next Wednesday, that should not be difficult given the Saudi’s performance against the host nation on Thursday.

Captain Diego Godin represented the 14th ranked nation’s best attacking threat for much of the game with his lung-bursting runs from defence into midfield. Frustration etched on his face as his country laboured.

Suarez’s day went from bad to worse, he spurned multiple chances and even engaged in his trademark playacting in the final seconds. El-Shenawy twice denied the Barcelona forward, first with a smart save immediately after half-time, and later when the Al Ahly goalkeeper smothered a fifty-fifty ball when the Uruguay all-time top goal scorer had taken one touch too many.

The Central Stadium was far from its maximum capacity with large sections of the venue sporting nothing but empty orange seats. However with the average price of the a ticket being 24,966 Russian Rubles (£300), over half of the average Russian monthly salary, you could hardly blame any locals for failing to turn out en masse. Still, the core of Egypt fans which had turned out created a hostile atmosphere, the chants turned to uncontrollable screeches whenever their hero, Salah, was on screen.

The African side had their moments, too, moments that made one wonder if the outcome would have been different if the Premier League golden boot winner was on the field. Mohamed Elneny shot over while Trezeguet was a constant thorn in the Uruguayan side but could not produce the final ball to genuine bother.

For now, only the win matters. But Oscar Tabarez will want to address the sluggish 80 minutes and get his side coming out of the gate quicker if they are to progress deep into the tournament.

Russia vs Saudi Arabia match report

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Robbie Williams sang the classic ‘Let Me Entertain You’. Perhaps for neutrals they feared this may be the only entertainment they got as the two lowest ranked sides in the tournament went head-to-head in the opening game.

Russia will have left their fans happy if not entertained as they soundly beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. With the victory the host nation ensured that they would not be the first hosts to be beaten in their opening game of a World Cup.

For as solid as Stanislav Cherchesov’s side was, the Saudis were equally as poor – even Russian President Vladimir Putin looked almost apologetic as he joked with the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and FIFA president, Gianni Infantino.

Russia played some eye-catching football throughout the match, but their opening goal came through the way of a simple cross and simple header. Yuri Gazinsky rose highest to meet an inswinging Aleksandr Golovin cross and power Sbornaya in front and score his first international goal.

The World Cup is the largest shop window in football and Golovin will have thrust himself right into the spotlight with two assists and a curling free kick to round off proceedings with the last kick of the game.

The 22-year-old’s second assists was for Villarreal forward Denis Cheryshev, who had replaced Alan Dzagoev after the Euro 2010 joint top scorer collapsed in a heap holding his hamstring.

The former Real Madrid forward produced a magnificent piece of skill, clipping the ball over two oncoming sliding Saudi defenders before rifling the ball into the roof of the net and register his first goal for his country.

Artyom Dzyuba sealed the game for the 2018 World Cup hosts with a clever header on the 70-minute mark before Cheresyv struck again with a brilliant goal. He ran on to a Roman Zobnin knock down and advanced into the penalty area before unleashing a brilliant shot with the outside of his left boot. An early contender for Goal of the Tournament – even if the tournament is still only one game old.

Golovin completed his Man of the Match performance in the third minute of added time when he left Saudi goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Maiouf floundering trying to reach his bending free kick from 22-yards out.

Juan Antonio Pizzi, who oversaw Chile’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign, could only watch on in frustration, flicking back his long mane of hair in anguish. He must now hope his lowly side rebound in Rostov next Wednesday when they face Uruguay.

Europa League Final match report: Marseille vs. Atletico Madrid

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If it was to be Antoine Griezmann’s last game in an Atletico Madrid shirt then it was a fitting farewell. The Frenchman was at his brilliant best as he score a brace and played a part in another as Atletico romped to a 3-0 victory over Marseille in the Europa League Final in Lyon.

 

The Frenchman is being heavily linked with a move to long-time rivals Barcelona, very much to the annoyance of his current employers. But there was little to be annoyed with on this evening when Griezmann gave everybody a stark reminder as to why he is being so heavily courted by Europe’s best.

 

It was also an emotional night for Fernando Torres who will be leaving Atletico for the second and final time in the summer when his contract expires. He came on in stoppage time to a chorus of cheers from the travelling Atletico support and finally got his hands on his first trophy with his boyhood club.

 

Marseille started the game on the front foot, the crowd packed into the Stade des Lumieres gave the contest the feel of a home game for the French outfit. It was Marseille who carved out the first big chance of the match. Dimitri Payet, who would later be reduced to tears after aggravating a hamstring injury, slide through a well-weighted ball into Valere Germain, the striker shaped up to shoot but bent his effort over from ten yards out and gave the Spanish visitors the wakeup call they needed.

 

Atletico, the footballing predators of the knock-out stages of Continental competitions, struck on the 21st minute to quieten to raucous Marseille fanbase. A Steve Mandanda pass was awfully controlled by Andre Zambo Anguissa. From there, Griezmann was fortuitously played in off a Gabi ricochet. There was little fortuitous about the Frenchman’s finish, however. He slotted the ball into the back of the net and wheeled away for his trademark Fortnite celebration.

 

Ten minutes later Marseille’s fortunes soured further with Payet laying on the turf massaging his hamstring. Tears ran down his face as he departed, knowing his final was over and he is now left to sweat as to his fitness ahead of the World Cup.

 

The second Atletico goal came four minutes into the second half. And it came from another Marseille mistake in which they were made to pay for. Marseille failed to get the ball under control from their throw-in and Atletico pounced upon the loose ball and fed it to Griezmann who executed a delicate lob over a hapless Mandanda in the most cold-blooded fashion.

 

From that point on Atletico gained a stranglehold on the game and suffocated the life out of Marseille. Florian Thauvin failed to produce his best and Lucas Ocampos showed off plenty of neat touches and tricks but, ultimately, failed to find the right final ball in the areas where it mattered.

 

Substitute Kostas Mitroglou had a header crash back off the inside of the post in the 80th minute which represented Marseille’s last chance.

 

Atletico captain Gabi completed the night with a well-struck finish in 89 minutes – again Griezmann was involved. Girezmann played a ball into Diego Costa and the brutish striker forced his way into the box before squeezing the ball back to Gabi who beat Mandanda for Atletico’s third of the evening.

 

It is the Spanish side’s third triumph in the competition in it’s short ten year history. Their attentions will now turn summer recruitment and trying to resist offers from Europe’s superpowers for their key players.

 

Jan Oblak has also been subject to speculation with several teams on the lookout for a world-class goalkeeper. There is also the matter of a job opening at Arsenal and the increasing likeliness that there will be another one at Chelsea. Diego Simeone will be a manager in high demand after claiming his sixth trophy as manager of Los Rojiblancos in a typically controlled fashion in France.

 

 

Manchester United v Chelsea: match report

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Jose Mourinho produced a tactical masterclass. His side were smarter, sharper and more ruthless than their opponents in every department and showed fans and critics alike what he can do when the big matches roll round. The game in question here, though, was Chelsea’s 3-1 destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United almost 12 years ago. On that day Mourinho enhanced his reputation further as Chelsea marched towards a record-breaking triumph in the Premier League.

 

12 years is a lifetime in football and this time, Mourinho seems like he is rebuilding his once unquestionable reputation. The Portuguese managed his best Man United game yet as he got the better of rival Antonio Conte in a feisty encounter. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera got the goals in what turned out to be a convincing 2-0 victory at Old Trafford and perhaps gives new life to their top four ambitions as well as the title race.

 

The Special One sprung surprises on Easter Sunday choosing to leave star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench and lining up in a 4-2-2 set-up with Rashford and Jese Lingard up front. Ander Herrera was tasked with marrying himself to Eden Hazard – flashbacks of the F.A. Cup tie where the Spaniard was given his marching orders after a late challenge on the Belgian may have had Man United fans worried. Not so this time as the tenacious midfielder stuck to his task diligently and frustrated the Chelsea talisman in an all-action man of the match performance.

 

Mourinho’s men flew out of the traps at Old Trafford with the pace and understanding between Rashford and Lingard causing problems for the Chelsea back three. The game was not even ten minutes old when Herrera stole possession – questionably as big shouts for handball appeared to be justified – before sliding an excellent ball in behind for Rashford to chance and calmly finish. A goal move unable to materialise, perhaps, if Ibrahimovic was spearheading the attack.

 

Diego Costa, often the subject of many subplots throughout Mourinho’s time at Chelsea, yet has seemed more measured under Conte, showed his unsavoury side yet again. The brutish Spanish striker found himself embroiled in battles with United’s defensive duo Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. His frustrations earned him a yellow card after a late challenge on Pogba.

 

Chelsea looked unusually unfocused, drawn into Manchester United’s clever mind games and acts of street-smarts. The focus was so much lacking that Gary Cahill was more attentive in hauling Lingard up from the ground during the build up to Herrera doubling United’s advantage.

 

It took Chelsea 45 minutes to muster their first effort on goal albeit a frustrated lash from Costa.

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Whatever Conte’s half time message was to his flat Chelsea side at the forefront of it must have been not to concede another goal early in the second half. However, some three minutes into the second period they found themselves further behind. Chelsea failed to clear their lines once more and Ashley Young, who was given the captain’s armband for the occasion, drove into the Chelsea penalty area before another failed clearance fell to Herrera. The Spaniard, the beneficiary of two slices of good fortune after his alleged handball in the first half for his assist for Rashford’s goal, arrowed his shot through a crowd of players which ricocheted off player’s in blue shirts on its way past Asmir Begovic in the Chelsea goal.

 

Before the hour mark Conte attempted to turn the tide in this giant game of chess. Cesc Fabregas came on to offer much needed creativity in place of Victor Moses, asked to operate out of the other full-back position after a pre-game injury to Marcos Alonso.

 

Mourinho countered with a tactical change of his own, sacrificing pace for control, as he brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard. The switch left Rashford isolated but that did not stop the young England centre forward from hustling and bustling his was up front and making life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defenders.

 

N’golo Kante failed to get his usual grip in midfield, partly due to the excellence of Mauroane Fellaini and Herrera in midfield scurrying around refusing to give the Chelsea key players a moments rest. Matteo Darmian found himself handcuffed to Pedro on the other side of the field refusing to let the former Barcelona wide man find space to operate in.

 

Mourinho’s side could have filled their boots in truth, Rashford smashed an effort into the side netting and Young spurned two excellent chances from the edge of the area to inflict more misery onto Conte’s men. England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands and will have been impressed with what he saw from the Manchester United English trio – especially in a new tactical set-up.

 

Rashford was brought off with just two minutes of time remaining to a standing ovation and allowed Ibrahimovic to get on in a cameo appearance.

 

Conte pleaded with his side to push forward in the closing stages but by that point United had become water tight, refusing to give an inch.

 

The final whistle brought with it a rapturous ovation, it was perhaps the most complete United performance since the days of Ferguson, and certainly the best day so far in Mourinho’s time as Man United manager. The former Chelsea boss could not have asked for much more in a week where his side have a vital away goal in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht capped off by a monumental league victory over what many believe to be the champions elect. Mourinho was at his meticulous best – substituting captain Young fully knowing it would take the winger-turned-full-back more time to exit the field due to him passing on the armband.

 

United fans chanted Mourinho’s name in unison clearly buoyed the masterful display. The same fans which were often sickened by Mourinho bringing his Chelsea teams to Old Trafford and furthering his reputation as The Special One now get to experience perhaps what is come down long road ahead.