The Longshot: Beat is on for the Samba kings

Brazil look shoo-ins for semis but can Argentina set up a South American clash for the ages?
The Longshot: Beat is on for the Samba kings

Hero or villain?: Portugal manager Fernando Santos eyes up Cristiano Ronaldo.

IF YOU were to have guessed at the start of the tournament what Ireland’s contribution to the World Cup would be you might have opted for spotting an Offaly jersey in the crowd at the final.

Or maybe even John Delaney gowned up in local garb a few seats down from Gianni Infantino.

Instead we’ve had a Limerick man claiming to be French bread and Brazilian fans deciding we’re party poopers.

That accusation came on the heels of Roy Keane deciding over-exuberant samba moves have no place in goal celebrations.

“I don’t mind the first kind of little jig or whatever but they are still doing it after that, and then the manager getting involved with it. I’m not happy with it,” he pronounced during their game with South Korea.

It wasn’t just Brazilian fans and journalists who joined the backlash, as midfielder Lucas Paquete responded: “We celebrate because it’s our moment. We scored a goal and Brazil is celebrating,” he said. “If he doesn’t like it, there’s not a lot I can do for him. If we score another goal, we’ll carry on celebrating like this.”

Presumably Keane is more approving of the half-hearted and sometimes sombre reactions another Portuguese speaker has had to his team-mates’ net-bulgers.

Will we be treated to more carnival-like capers this afternoon?

The first quarter-final looks like the easiest to call. It is nearly unimaginable that Croatia will stop Brazil reaching the semis.

They were fortunate to sneak past Japan on penalties. They went 120 minutes and will be fatigued, while Brazil made light work of the Koreans, putting the game to bed in the first 30 minutes. Aside from their 4-1 win over a porous Canada defence, Croatia have scored one other goal in their other three games, held by Uruguay and pummelled by Belgium in the final group match when they somehow did not to concede multiple goals thanks to Romelu Lukaku’s miserable cameo. A similar but more sustained barrage is expected here.

Can Modric go to the well one last time? Not on the evidence of the Japan game, where he looked a shadow of his former self and all of his 37 years.

Their defence will have to put in career-best performances and veteran Dejan Lovren might be best advised to leave Richarlison duties to his young colleague Josko Gvardiol (whose surname fittingly means “to guard and is nicknamed ‘Pep’ for its Spanish translation ‘Guardiola’).

They are 8/1 to win the game in 90 minutes and 5/1 to knock out the five-time champs.

What of Portugal, who looked so good after dropping their “star man”? They face tournament revelations Morocco, who beat Spain on penalties to complete our 12/1 Tuesday tip.

Whisper it: a Ronaldo-Messi final. That would recall Federer-Nadal at the 2017 Aussie Open, an epic match-up we thought we’d never see again.

Except Ronaldo will start every game he has left on the bench, something that is both fitting and funny.

In the Switzerland game we were treated to half a stadium chanting his name, a bit like the Everyman echoing to calls from the crowd for Iago to enter stage left during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

On that Swiss performance, Portugal look like they can go all the way to the final, but will their number seven be content a Tony Cascarino-like role of maybe being sent on to get a header in the box from a corner if they are in trouble late on?

Or will he continue to behave like a difficult uncle invited to Christmas dinner? Whatever happens, it guarantees to be dramatic.

Morocco suffered a setback against Spain, when defender Nayef Aguerd was withdrawn in the second half with what appeared to be a recurrence of an ankle injury that kept him out for two months at the beginning of the season for West Ham.

Their defeat of Spain means the 2010 world champions haven’t won a knockout game at the tournament since they lifted the trophy. They join 2014 champs Germany and 2006 winners Italy on that statistic. Only France are bucking the trend.

The North African side’s team spirit looks impeccable, but they will have their hands full with Goncalo Ramos, who’d played just 33 minutes of international football prior to the Swiss game, and then struck the first hat-trick in the knockout stages since Tomas Skuhravy in 1990.

Morocco would be the first truly surprising semi-finalists since Turkey 20 years ago.

They are 5/2 to progress and 9/2 to win the game. Don’t rule it out.

I’d dearly prefer to see Messi line up against Brazil in a potential semi-final than Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay, but how likely is that? Well. the bookies reckon 8/13 on Argentina to advance and 5/4 on Holland.

The tallest people in the world who live on the flattest land pitted against the fiery home of the tango.

The fixture is one of the more storied cross-continental clashes at World Cups, with the 1978 tickertape final, when Total Football was overcome for a second final in a row, the standout clash.

The game is also a rematch of their 2014 semi, which finished scoreless and saw the South American side advance to the final on penalties. Still, the Dutch have not lost a game to non-European opponents at a World Cup since defeat to Brazil back in 1994, a run of 19 straight matches. They are also on a 19-match unbeaten run across all competitions dating back to their defeat to the Czechs in the Euro 2020 round of 16.

England-France is a derby game, no doubt about that. I don’t think it is a secret that English people generally look at the French with the sort of disdain that ourselves and our Celtic cousins gaze at the English. It’s not really right to do so, and not everyone does, but enough do to make it a thing.

The game could be labelled as the best player versus the best squad. England have been ploddng along nicely, clinical more than flamboyant. They looked ordinary in the first half against Senegal but ended it 2-0 up.

Without Mbappe, would we be talking about France as contenders? Will he run Kyle Walker and co. dizzy tomorrow evening? It’s a distinct possibility. He will also lock horns with Declan Rice for the first time since the two played on opposing sides in Paris, when the West Ham man wore green. Such has been the imperious play of Jude Bellingham in the middle, you could argue England could have managed without Rice and Grealish and left them to us.

The Dortmund star’s tussle with Rabiot and Griezmann in the centre of the pitch is crucial. He’ll also have to engage in a battle with 22-year-old Aurélien Tchouamáni, who plays deeper and will be tasked with tracking Bellingham’s forward surges.

A game to savour. France are 4/5 to go through; England evens (and 2/1 to win in 90 minutes, something they have not done in a competitive match against France since the 1982 World Cup.)

Champions Cup returns

SOUTH African clubs add their considerable heft to the now oddly named European Champions Cup this week-end.

Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria are added to the list of venues with the introduction of the African contingent from the URC: winners the Stormers, finalists the Bulls and the Sharks embark on a maiden journey in the competition.

The format is the same convoluted one as last season with tiers in pools again, like a child learning to swim. The traditional six-groups-of-four format remains binned and instead 24 teams will again be split into two pools based on seeding and paired up with two teams to face home and away.

This unwieldy format was meant to be a temporary arrangement during Covid, but is now in its third season.

Munster welcome second favourites Toulouse (13/2 to win the title outright) to Thomond this Sunday and travel to Northampton the week after (the fixtures are reversed in January).

Next year’s final will be in Dublin and Leinster are well out ahead in the market to join the storied French club on five titles. They are 9/4 to win the trophy in front of a home crowd next May. Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle, who as underdogs defeated Leinster in the decider last year, are 7/1 to retain their title. English champions Leicester are 14-1, the Stormers 28-1 and reigning French champions Montpellier 33-1. France boast the last two Champions Cup winners and six of the last eight semi-finalists, yet still remain suspected of treating the tournament as a secondary priority. Munster are rated as 25/1 shots.

The Reds are 7/5 to beat the side from the Garonne region this weekend (the game is live on RTÉ 2), while the French Top 14 leaders (led by wonderful scrum-half Antoine Dupont) are 5/6 favourites to leave with the points. They have made the last four in the past four seasons, including lifting the trophy in 2021. It should be a close tie and Munster to win by 1-5 points is 9/2. Toulouse to win by 6-10 seems more likely at 11/2.

Elsewhere, Eddie Jones has been sacked by England with less than a year to go to the World Cup. Despite having the best win record in the country’s history (and best win rate [90%] of any coach at World Cups) and guiding them to a World Cup final and three Six Nations titles, the Aussie was told to pack his bags after a poor year.

O’Gara had been mentioned as a successor, but has ruled himself out and for now Richard Cockerill has been appointed caretaker and is 3/1 to take over full time. Ahead of him at 2/1 is former England captain Steve Borthwick, who worked with Jones for five years in the England set-up as forwards coach.

Having taken charge of the Leicester Tigers in 2020, Borthwick has overseen a turnaround at that club, transforming them from English Premierships strugglers to pace-setters.

Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland are rated as outsiders for the job.

The Bet

BRAZIL are surely a lock. Morocco might trouble Portugal if Ronaldo keeps stirring things up. Or his behaviour might galvanise the starting 11 again.

I’ll go for a four-timer of naming the semi-finalists. Go for three favourites and the auld enemy: Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and England at 6/1.

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