James Gray bemoans the romance of the attackers, and shines the light backwards on the rock of the side.
I really should tell you all about how Allen Farrington wrote off Cristiano Ronaldo last week, and how wrong he was. However, after 75 minutes of stalemate, I decided I would have to write about defenders. Tonight saw two of the best centre back performances of the tournament. It’s not fashionable to talk about centre halves. It’s especially unfashionable to wax lyrical about Real Madrid’s Pepe. As an uncompromising centre half myself though (Surely they don’t let you play football? Ed.), he strikes a chord with me.
When you’re watching Real Madrid, or arguing about them in the pub, it’s easy to forget about their defence. Who can blame you, when there is so many other, far more creative and attractive players to look at? Ronaldo, Benzema, Khedira, Higuain, Di Maria, Kaka, Alonso…The list is unbelievable. Even Casillas gets his fair share of attention because he is so unique, being a goalkeeper, and fifth on Real’s all-time appearance list. It is the inevitably centre halves who get overlooked, even though every great team has got two of these men sitting in the changing room, grinding bones to make their bread.
After a truly thrilling tournament thus far, the first quarter-final was a dull affair. Anyone following Saint Sport on Twitter will probably have noticed my thinly veiled boredom as live blogging the game became less about the football and more about the haircuts (#greathair or #terriblehair; get it trending). However what was keeping my interest alive was the display of two exceptional defenders, one well-known, the other a relative unknown to most fans. I won’t say too much about Pepe’s performance, because we all know that at his best, Pepe is strong in the air, stronger in the challenge, and intercepts the ball marvelously. (Those who claim Pepe is dirty might be interested to know that he committed just 29 fouls in 29 games last season, fewer than Ramos, Alonso, and Diarra.) Against the Czech Republic, when the game still had the semblance of a contest for the first 35 minutes, he closed down everything, and the crosses into the box which were the Republic’s main modus operandi, were expertly dealt with. At the other end, the Czechs had to deal with the Portuguese forward line of Ronaldo, Postiga, and Nani. To keep them out even for an hour would be a feat, and someone would need to play out of skin. Step forward Michal Kadlec, a left back who can fill in at centre back.
Up until this tournament, he was probably best known for fighting with vice-captain Manuel Friedrich over Lionel Messi’s shirt. If the only thing that Kadlec had done all tournament was head the ball off the line against the Poles in injury time to keep his side in the competition, then he would have had several pints of Staropramen waiting on the bar for him when he got home. As it is, he should never have to pay for a drink in Prague again. He was excellent throughout. For the first 35 minutes, I forgot that Helder Postiga was playing, because he was too busy scrambling at the inside of Kadlec’s pocket. The 27-year-old Bayer Leverkusen stalwart dealt with crosses, long balls and the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, when it fell to him to do so. The only time he was truly undone was at the end of the first half, when CR7 chested the ball down, touched it passed him in a flash, and hit the post, and I would challenge anybody to have stopped him doing it. Apart from that, he was at no fault for the goal, when Ronaldo nipped in front of a sleepy Gebre Selassie, and Almeida escaped him on only one occasion. Partnered by Tomas Sivok, the Czechs had a formidable defence, with Petr Cech behind them, and it is to their credit that it took one of the world’s greatest players and the rest nearly an entire game to score. Even if they were a little lucky. If I were a Premier League manager looking for a composed, versatile defender with a left foot, Michal Kadlec would have just jumped onto my shopping list.