Striking when it matters

David Villa…five goals in as many matches apart from one assist. The striker has been involved in Spain's every goal-scoring move in South Africa.-AP

While goals have been at a premium in this edition of the World Cup too, a select band of players have risen to the occasion, scoring those all-important goals that have made the difference between delight and despair By Ayon Sengupta.

Irrespective of the silken moves a team is able to weave in the midfield, it is, ultimately goals that matter. And, in this World Cup, the players' converting skills have determined the difference between teams that advanced and the ones that fell by the wayside.

While goals have been at a premium in this edition of the World Cup too, a select band of players have risen to the occasion, scoring those all-important goals that have made the difference between delight and despair.

David Villa (Spain), Wesley Sneijder (the Netherlands), Diego Forlan (Uruguay) and Miroslav Klose (Germany) have already become heroes, whatever the final outcome of World Cup 2010.

At 28, Villa has been his country's best player in the tournament so far, even pushing Xavi and Andres Iniesta to the background as far as making an impact on the final outcome of Spain's matches is concerned. Five goals in as many matches apart from one assist means Villa has been involved in Spain's every goal-scoring move in South Africa. And the fact that he has achieved all this despite playing out of his usual position only underlines the Spanish striker's class.

With Fernando Torres injured in the build-up to South Africa, Villa took the centre stage, leading Spain's forward line, a space he had made his own for the past five seasons with Valencia, averaging more than 20 goals per season. Club-mate David Silva provided Villa a perfect foil, the two interchanging positions frequently to throw the opposition off-guard.

But as the World Cup progressed, Villa was pushed wide to the left to accommodate the return of the better-known Liverpool striker, Torres. Not many frontline strikers would have handled such last minute adjustments as well as Villa. He not only took things in his stride but also excelled in his new position. With the tournament at its business end, he, undoubtedly, has been the best striker on show.

However, no one player can make a team. The current World Cup has proved this point over and over again. The pre-tournament hype apart, the teams that have jelled well as a unit have reaped rich dividends while individual flair and artistry have taken a backseat. How else does one explain the fall of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kaka and Wayne Rooney, all very highly paid players in the world?

The days of a Diego Maradona or a Pele winning a tournament single-handedly is a thing of the past. The Argentine legend and his boys learnt this lesson the hard way, after a humiliating 4-0 defeat to their archrival Germany in the quarterfinals.

While the Argentina players failed to score despite holding possession for the best part of the game, the Germans played hard, scoring from almost every opportunity. With both teams outplaying their opponents in earlier rounds, one expected the contest between Germany and Argentina to be anything but one-sided.

But after being outplayed by Germany, Argentina coach Maradona said, “This was (like) a punch from Muhammad Ali. I have no strength for anything.”

A third minute howler by Sergio Romero saw Mueller score Germany's first goal, after doing well to get ahead of his marker Nicolas Otamendi and score — and Argentina really found it difficult to fight back from that stage onwards.

Messi, the World Player of the Year, performs at his best when his team-mates rise to the occasion and match his pace.

New-found harmony…Dirk Kuyt (left), Mark van Bommel (centre) and Arjen Robben celebrate Netherlands' quarterfinal victory against Brazil.-AP

This has always been the case whenever he has played for his club Barcelona.

The troika of Messi, Xavi and Andreas Iniesta form the backbone of every attacking move for the Catalonian giants.

However, in Argentina's most crucial of World Cup games, against Germany, Messi's colleagues deserted him. He was just a forlorn figure, falling back deep to gather the ball, only to be hustled off by one, two or at times three German defenders. Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez and Angel de Maria failed to protect or link up with the side's playmaker. Forwards Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain struggled to pick Messi's passes and the Argentines were left to try out feeble long-rangers in an attempt to change their wretched luck.

Joachim Loew's side, on the other hand, stuck to its plan, each man backing up the other and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Thomas Mueller taking up the additional burden arising from the 21-year-old attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil's rare off-day on the field. Ozil's European under-21 team-mate Mueller showed the uncanny knack of successfully meeting every goalmouth cross. They pressurised the Argentines for every free ball, switched places at will, and pulverised the opponent's ill-worked defence. Klose scored twice in the match, taking his grand total to 52 international goals and 14 in World Cups, just one short of Ronaldo's record.

The Netherlands this year is a different team altogether. Setting aside the clichés of total football, it has knitted together three brilliant playmakers and eight stout defensive players who mean business. Winning all 12 of its last competitive games — the Netherlands has not lost a match in regulation time since November 2007, a 1-2 defeat to Belarus — the Dutch have forged a new-found harmony that should help them realise their potential.

It has not been success all the way for players such as Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. Only a year ago both Robben and Sneijder, discarded by Real Madrid as surplus, were unsure of their future in the game. But thankfully, things panned out well for the two thereafter. Sneijder moved to Inter Milan, while Robben headed for Bayern Munich. The former helped his team achieve a rare treble while the latter came close to it.

But that summer of humiliation is not lost on either Robben or Sneijder. “I'm not going to lie, last summer was very difficult for me,” Sneijder said. “It had been a long time since somebody told me I wasn't good enough. But that made me stronger, and I think it was the same with (Robben).”

Van Persie, on the other hand, gained toughness on the treatment table following endless hours of rehabilitation he had in England with Arsenal. Incidentally, he played less than 20 of the club's competitive games last season.

But in South Africa, Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie put behind them those difficult times and forged a nice working partnership upfront with the industrious Dirk Kuyt. They have enjoyed each other's success, unlike the squabbling Dutch stars of the past. Sneijder, an attacking midfielder playing behind Van Persie and Kuyt, has scored whenever it mattered most.

The job of the Villas, Kloses and Sneijders is to score goals. And, if they continue to do so, there might be even more reasons to celebrate in the streets of Madrid, Berlin or Amsterdam.