Germany are in trouble on road to Euro 2020. PLUS: Neymar returns to action, Samuel Eto'o retires
It's the international break but that doesn't mean there's a break in the Monday Musings! Gab Marcotti is here to recap the big stories around soccer.
Jump to: Germany in trouble? | Good week for the Dutch | Punishments for Lukaku abuse? | Neymar returns to action | Kane's England quest | VAR helps unbeaten Italy | A vital win for Portugal | Praise for retiring Eto'o
Germany in trouble?
Germany's trip to Northern Ireland on Monday loomed large after Friday's defeat to the Netherlands but the 2-0 win, only sealed in second-half injury time, will have calmed things behind the scenes for Die Mannschaft fans and critics alike though the European giants are far from where they need to be.
It's not an issue of talent. Loew's new-look Germany, with its 3-4-3 "transition" (read: defend-and-counter) has plenty of it. The issue though is that when you're set up to play without the ball -- lest we forget, that's a major departure from the past -- it can be extremely frustrating against teams who are also happy to sit and defend. News flash: that's what Northern Ireland, Belarus and Estonia, the other sides in the group, are likely to do.
Only the top two qualify directly and getting there via the playoffs is far from straightforward given that Germany were relegated from their Nations League group, which is the main criteria to establish who get a second crack at Euro 2020. That's why Loew said three points against Northern Ireland is a must and while they succeeded, his new approach has plenty worried.
It's not the way most of these players play for the club sides. The set-up not only doesn't have room for the veterans he dumped, but it also didn't feature Kai Havertz, possibly Germany's brightest attacking prospect. Most of all, having reinvented the national side tactically some 15 years ago as the brains behind Jurgen Klinsmann's operation, he's now doing a 180-degree turn in the aircraft carrier that is Die Mannschaft.
Few coaches can manage even one massive U-turn in their career. Trying two of them may be a little too far.
Meanwhile, the Dutch are looking good
As for the Dutch, the combination of Ajax's run to the Champions League semifinal, the concurrent emergence of Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong, as well as the Nations League final, has stoked plenty of enthusiasm after missing out on consecutive major tournaments, something that had not happened in three decades.
They're nicely stacked in some areas of the pitch (central defence and midfield) and less so in others. Ryan Babel, at this stage of his career, and Quincy Promes can only take you so far. But if Donyell Malen lives up to the hype and becomes a viable foil for Memphis Depay, they could get very good, very quickly.
Where's the punishment for abusing Lukaku?
We still don't whether and how Cagliari or the supporters who racially abused Romelu Lukaku will be punished. You can thank a well-intentioned, but diabolically convoluted, system of sporting justice for that.
Late last week, the Italian FA's sporting judge said he was delaying a decision on bringing charges in order to "acquire more evidence" from stewards and law enforcement. That's because the abuse -- while clearly audible to TV viewers, those in that section of the stand and, obviously, Lukaku himself -- was not heard in the main stand. It doesn't mean there won't be punishment necessarily, just that a different procedure is required. You just hope it will make sense.
Meanwhile, Inter's Curva Nord Ultras group wrote a letter to Lukaku explaining that racially abusing players of color during matches is about unsettling them and putting them off their game, nothing more. Oh, and that those who behave that way wouldn't do it outside a stadium, because they're not really racist.
It's nothing we haven't heard before. Football's job isn't, and can't be, to punish people who are racist: that would require mind-readers. It's to stop and punish racist behaviour, whether it's monkey chants or discrimination or whatever, to ensure that players and fans of color can go to a football match without this deeply offensive behaviour.
As for Inter, they chose not to react and distance themselves from the Curva Nord's statement. Why? Because this fan group doesn't represent the majority of Inter supporters or even the majority of Inter Ultras: they estimate it's made up of a few hundred people. And they don't want to legitimize them or give them air time.
I get the argument, but the horse has bolted here. On a local level, folks can understand it. On a global level, media reports have made it seem as if the Curva Nord speaks for all Ultras, all Inter fans or even the club itself, which is deeply damaging to the club and the vast majority of their supporters. More to the point, it isn't addressing the actual issue at hand.
Neymar's positive return to action
Neymar stepped on the pitch after three months on the sidelines against Colombia on Friday: he hadn't played since picking up that injury against Qatar before the Copa America, and in some ways it looked as if he'd never been away. I said "some ways" because there was a fair amount of rust in the first half and even some boos from the crowd.
But he came to life after the break, scored a goal and showed plenty of fire and motivation. Which, given his injury layoff and the nerve-wracking final days of the transfer window was certainly not something to be taken for granted. It finished 2-2, but Neymar's return was the most encouraging bit, both for Tite's Brazil and for Paris Saint-Germain.
Kane certain to break England's goal record
England rolled past Bulgaria with a straightforward 4-0 win at Wembley, with Harry Kane grabbing a hat trick. The path to Euro 2020 looks downhill from here, which means Gareth Southgate has the luxury of time to work on improving and fixing areas that are sub-optimal, particularly the midfield, where (Harry Winks aside) there isn't much in the way of creativity.
Speaking of Kane, he's up to 25 international goals, having leap-frogged the likes of Geoff Hurst and Stan Mortensen. Barring injury or sudden decline, he could challenge the all-time mark of 53 held by Wayne Rooney. Kane turned 26 in July, at the same age Rooney had 28 goals to his name. But, of course, Rooney scored his last international goal at the age of 30. And you'd expect Kane to go on well beyond that.
Italy stay perfect in qualifying thanks to VAR
Italy made it six wins out of six over the international break, with away victories over Armenia (3-1) and Finland (2-1). The six victories on the bounce mean that Roberto Mancini is one win away from equaling the all-time record of consecutive wins for an Azzurri boss set by the legendary Vittorio Pozzo, who coached the side to the 1934 and 1938 World Cup.
But the Finland game also offered yet another compelling pro-VAR argument, since Italy's winner came on a penalty awarded for this handball that was anything but punishable. Contrary to what many seem to insist, not every ball striking an arm in the penalty area is a penalty. Referees still have discretion and this was not a penalty.
Of course, there is no VAR in Euro qualifying. And there is also the very real prospect of Finland missing out on the Euros, which would be their first-ever major international tournament, by a single point. You can argue about execution and implementation as long as you like, but this is why VAR was introduced.
A vital win for Portugal
Having been held to a draw in their opening two games (at home, no less) it was critical that Portugal not slip up away to Serbia at the weekend. The reigning European (and Nations League) champions are assured of a playoff spot, but nobody wants to go through that. Away to Serbia, they raced to a 2-0 lead, had Serbia bring it back to 2-3 and then struck late for a 4-2 win that restores a bit of natural order.
Cristiano Ronaldo got on the scoresheet for his 89th international goal. At 34, he has an outside chance of catching Ali Daei, the all-time leading international scorer who has 109 and a much better shot at reaching 100 international goals. Funnily enough, despite those who depict him as a narcissist obsessed with his his own records, he'd likely be closer to the goal if he hadn't taken an eight-month break from the national team to help him settle in after his move to Juventus a year ago.
Eto'o retires as a legend
You can't sum up Samuel Eto'o in numbers, although they're impressive enough to rattle off. Twenty-two years as a professional, 13 clubs, six countries, four league titles, three Champions League crowns, two Africa Cup of Nations and the 2000 Olympic Gold medal with Cameroon.
Last week, he brought to a close an incredible career, one from which he squeezed every ounce of adrenaline. You can choose your own highlight from two decades at the top. Football-wise, three things stand out, each of which in its own way helps define him -- although only in part.
Eto'o successfully straddled both the Ronaldinho and the Lionel Messi eras at Barcelona, ultimately leaving in that ill-fated swap with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He arrived at Inter to play up front with Diego Milito and then, after Jose Mourinho signed Wesley Sneijder, selflessly transformed himself into a humble up-and-down winger, doing the running not just for Milito, but Sneijder too, and playing a key part in the historic Treble.
And he became the world's highest-paid player by moving to Anzhi Makhachkala in war-torn Dagestan at the age of 31, a transfer which shocked the world and pulverised records.
More than most superstars, he embraced and relished the blue-collar role when called upon to serve others, whether Ronaldinho, Messi or Sneijder. He knew when to ride his ego and when to put it aside. Folks may differ on whether or not he was the greatest player ever from Africa, but he's easily in my personal top three, alongside Eusebio (who played for Portugal but was born in Mozambique and was older than Eto'o when he moved to Europe) and Jay Jay Okocha.