Steel over silk, again

In European soccer, steel usually prevails over silk. That’s why the steely Germans and Italians have won between them four World Cups and two European Cups since I’ve followed soccer, while the silky sides from Spain and Portugal have won neither competition during the same period.

Steel prevailed over silk today when Germany defeated Portugal 3-2. Going into the match, several factors pointed towards that result. Portugal continues to play only one central striker, the slight Nuno Gomes, who seemed likely to be swallowed up by the German central defense firm of Metzelder and Mertesacker. Portugal is also lightweight in midfield and (with the exception of Pepe) small at the back. To make matters worse, their goal-keeper has a tendency to misplay high balls. Meanwhile, the German midfielders are powerful and the team’s overall height is substantial. Moreover, with Friedrich restored to the starting 11 at right back and the world-class Lahm back in his customary left back position, the Germans are no longer pushovers on the flanks, as they were in the Croatia debacle a week ago.

To be sure, Portugal had been playing considerably better than Germany, but this is part of the usual hare and tortoise scenario. The silky club begins the tournament on fire, while the steely club (generally Italy or Germany) gains momentum as the event progresses.

Yet this year, Portugal seemed to have an equalizer in the form of Ronaldo. Although a winger (probably the best in the world), Ronaldo is also capable of drifting into the middle to support Gomes as a second striker. In effect, he’s the equivalent of a player and half, and he’s normally good for producing at least a goal a game. Germany had scored more than one goal in only one of its three first round matches.

Over the years the Germans have had some success against teams led by superstars in their prime (against Cruyff’s Holland in 1974 and Maradona’s Argentina in 1990, but not in 1986). Yet this German team does not seem in the same class as those squads. Thus, this match looked like a toss-up to me.

Today, though, Ronaldo was not comparable to Cruyff or Maradona. While he just about produced his one goal (a great strike yielded a rebound which Gomes finished), he certainly did not run riot. His performance was the equivalent of Kobe Bryant or Lebron James scoring 23 points on 9 of 19 shooting, as opposed to 36 points on 14 of 25.

It wasn’t good enough. The Germans parlayed height, precision, and scandalously poor Portuguese defending into two headed goals on set pieces. The other goal (the first) came during a strong run of play early on, perhaps the result of the element of surprise, as Germany abandoned its normal 4-4-2 formation in favor of five in midfield.

Steel and silk are scheduled for a rematch on Sunday when the improving Italians take on the soaring Spaniards.

UPDATE: Some have suggested that I’m too generous to Ronaldo in comparing his performance to a 23 point game in basketball. Perhaps. But the brilliance he displayed in the latter part of the first half struck me as the equivalent of a 12 point second quarter.

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