While the European Championships threatened to dominate the headlines last night, the Group of Death failed to deliver on the entertainment front and it was down to the day’s other international matches to provide the excitement. Don’t get me wrong, both of the Euro matches were intriguing tactical battles, but in terms of pure action the prestige friendly between Argentina and Brazil in New Jersey stole the show. It says a lot about tournament football when the total of the two games are outscored by a single player, but then again that player was none other than Lionel Messi.
Ibrahim Afellay and Holland failed to capitalise on their many chances against a resolute Danish side who emerged victorious thanks to Michael Krohn-Dehli’s solitary goal in the 23rd minute. In the other Group B match Germany got off to a solid start with a 1-0 victory over Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. The Germans are amongst the favourites for the Championship, but struggled to breakdown a well-drilled Portugal side for the majority of the game until Mario Gomez headed home Sami Khedira’s deflected cross.
Bearing in mind how much Ronaldo despises a defensive approach (if it doesn’t deliver the expected results anyway), he must have been furious when he found out that his arch-enemy Lionel Messi had dragged an otherwise mediocre Argentina team to victory against their South American rivals Brazil. Elsewhere Alexis Sanchez and Chile left it late against Venezuela, with two goals in the final five minutes securing a 2-0 win, as well as temporary top spot in CONMEBAL qualifying. After the jump is a little report on the individual performances of the Barcelona players in action last night.
Ibrahim Afellay – Played 71 minutes
Considering his lack of action since recovering from that awful knee injury in September, I can’t help but be impressed by Afellay’s performances. Despite being pushed out to the left-hand side which arguably isn’t his best position, he was one of Holland’s few positives from last night. His passing was solid if a little unspectacular, and his passing accuracy of 97% is nothing short of phenomenal. Sure, he could benefit from a little more accuracy in his shooting, but that applied to every Dutch player on the field last night. While Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie were wasteful with their chances, at least Afellay got close to the target including one raking shot that missed the far corner by only a few inches. Perhaps Ibi wasn’t as dominant as he was in the warm-up games, but given all he has been through in the past few months, it’s a wonder he is at the tournament at all.
Javier Mascherano – Played 90 minutes
Mascherano has been one of the revelations of domestic season, making the transition from midfield destroyer to dominant centre-back without so much as a single problem, but for Argentina he is still used as a defensive midfielder. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it is a waste, but surely someone like Esteban Cambiasso could fill in at CDM while Mascherano improves the overall quality of the defense by slotting in alongside Ezequiel Garay? Regardless, a switch to centre-back for his country seems unlikely so Mascherano will continue to fight a losing battle in the mediocre Argentine midfield. The trio of Mascherano, Gago and Sosa simply isn’t balanced enough to really compete. Mascherano was also booked.
Lionel Messi – Played 90 minutes
Just when you think you have him figured out, he goes and does something like this. For years Lionel Messi has been exemplary at club level, but often accused of under-performing for his country. Well, this performance should end that debate entirely. Approaching his 25th birthday, Messi is captaining his country and God damn it; he is doing an excellent job of it. There is a growing completeness to his performances with the national team (suck on that Pele) and the goals are starting to flow. He has scored at least once in each of his last four games with Argentina, and this was his second hat-trick in his last three international matches. Not only that, but it was the first hat-trick by an Argentine against Brazil since Jose Sanfilippo in 1959 (courtesy of @barcastuff). Each of the goals were sublime, and while the third was the most eye-catching, the other two were equally brilliant. For his first he raced clear of the defense and slotted the ball past Rafael while moving at top speed, and his second saw him touch the ball past the keeper before finishing while off-balance. Then to top it all off, he picked up the ball around the half-way line, evaded the challenge of Marcelo before thumping an unstoppable strike into the top corner from 20 yards to win the game – all the while holding off the challenge of another defender. It was his 12th hat-trick of the season for club and country, and perhaps the one that cements his place as the favourite for the Ballon D’Or.
Alexis Sanchez – Played 90 minutes
Sanchez was on the receiving end of some criticism during and following the game, but there is one seemingly obvious reason for his "below-par" performance: Venezuela simply didn’t allow him to get going. Alexis was fouled seven times during the match, which is enough to throw anyone off their game. However, in spite of this he did supply the cross for the all-important opening goal, floating the ball into the box for Matias Fernandez to control with his chest and strike home. Curiously enough, the Chilean didn’t even register a single shot over the course of the 90 minutes.