Monday, December 28, 2009

Soccernomics: A Review

For those of you looking for some interesting reading that doesn't involve vampires, Dan Brown's (in)eloquence, or the incomprehensible ramblings of an ex-Alaskan governor or a tearful conservative TV host, there is some relief. Pick up Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey-And Even Iraq-Are Destined to Become Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport. I'm sorry if what follows roams into book report territory, but it's my post and I can write what I want.

Soccernomics is co-written by Simon Kuper, familiar to some of you as the author of the classic Soccer Against the Enemy and Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War, and Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist. Apparently Kuper likes very long subtitles.

The thrust of Soccernomics is that the authors are seeking a way to understand soccer through statistical analysis in a very general and broad sense.

This basic premise raises a lot of immediate red flags. Taking directly from my friend Pat, soccer is the most continuous of sports, therefore statistical analysis will always play a less important role in soccer than in a sport like baseball. I think everyone agrees with this.

Fortunately, Soccernomics is more than just an attempt to develop a Moneyball approach to soccer (though that is a stated goal of the authors). Additionally, there is no attempt to create the soccer equivalent of baseball's sabremetrics like WHIP or VORP, which are aimed at objectively measuring and analyzing baseball players through statistics. Again, there is some of this is in the book, such as Arsene Wenger's well-known prediliction for statistically tracking his players with stats like meters run during a match, and I can even think of other useful stats like passing percentage that aren't actually discussed by the authors.

Still, Kuper and Szymanski provide some thought provoking statistical analyses. Some of their conclusions have strong merit, others are quite surprising, and still more plainly suffer from glaring deficiencies and biases. In fact, I often found myself simulaneously pointing out many problems with their analyses as I was reading and enoying the book. But my critique comes from the fact that I was so engrossed by the topic and I had very high expectations. I wanted something perfect and earth shattering -- something that would open up a whole new way of looking at soccer -- and what I got was flawed. Yet it was certainly an interesting read. Excellent at times even. But it won't be studied by legions of future team presidents and general managers.

The big caveat here is to always take an attempt at statistically analyzing soccer as a great exercises in sparking a debate, be it a barroom debate or a genuine intellectual one. That's why I liked Soccernomics, not because I'm going to start using its analysis as a way to judge the World Cup, but because I could debate some of its points and conclusions for hours with friends.

The main topic, which bookends Soccernomics, is an analysis of the performance of national teams. This analysis is based on how a particular nation should perform in terms of goal differential when taking into account the country's population, income (GDP per capita), and international experience, and the actual over- or under-performance (in goal differential) against the expected goal difference.

This is a simplistic explanation, as the formula the authors use involves giving each criteria a particular weight and taking into account home field. For example, home field boosts expected goal differential a certain amount, as would be expected, though it does less so in Europe than it does elsewhere across the globe. Not earth shattering on its own (homefield certainly means more to the bag-o-piss throwing Central Americans than it does the Swiss or Italians). Similarly, being twice as rich or twice as large in population correlates to a country having a certaing degree greater expected goal differential.

Some of this leads to surprising results, though when you think about it maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. Given England's small relative size they actually over-perform against the expected results. The problem of course is the public's expectations and the "conventional wisdom," which is based largely on the historical sense of England as the mother of the sport and therefore center of the soccer universe, including the English League.

There are other factors to take into account of course. In a very interesting review of the Three Lions's roster over a number of years, it seems that only about 15% of the players came from "middle class" upbringings rather than lower class, whereas the English population as a whole certainly has a greater percentage of middle class -- the implication being that England inherently limits the pool of potential young boys who have a chance of becoming the next Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard. Somewhat reminiscent of the discovery in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that Canadian hockey players benefit from being born in the early months of the year.

Despite discrediting the idea that England is an under-performer (and a few other nuggets of conventional wisdom), the authors don't take similar detail in examining other countries. They look at the data and point out some of the surprising results - other classic "underachievers" who are actually overachievers include Spain and Portugal (consider Portugal's small size, population, and GDP per capita and it's quite amazing they are so good and produce some of the best players of all-time, going back from Eusebio to Figo to C. Ronaldo). Shockingly, unified Germany and Italy are slight underachievers!

Sometimes the mere difference is that when it comes down to it, Italy and Germany might struggle through qualification, but they win when it matters. This is a big flaw of course in pure statistical analysis, because looking at win percentage and expected v. actual goal differential doesn't take into account the fact that even though a unified Germany should be winning more games at a slightly greater goal difference, the games they nonetheless won were World Cup semi-finals, not friendlies against England.

Still, you'll like looking at the lists of overachievers -- a surprising team is number one, and Armenia are big time overachievers! -- and underachievers. The list of underachievers includes one huge nation that I think we can all guess.

To the authors' credit, they inject a degree of common sense when looking at some of the numbers to determine who the best overachieving nation is (excluding Brazil, who is not only expected to do great but also overperforms!) and who is the relative worst nation. For instance, Honduras is a great overperformer, but they face much weaker competition regularly than European teams. Unfortuantely, because there's so much data here to mine through for the authors, they don't always keep everything straight. It made sense when I was reading it, but looking back it's a little confusing to compare and figure what exactly went into the "overperformers" rankings versus the "overachievers" rankings and how they are constantly breaking out tables comparing just the top European teams. Nonetheless, the great overachiever, and someday a threat to the world order of the sport is probably not the country most people would have predicted, especially considering its political, um, instability.

Another analysis I greatly enjoyed was a look at which country was the most soccer mad (this analysis in particular is very interesting, but involves huge caveats, particularly limited to just Europe due to availability of accurate and reliable data) and which country per capita is the greatest sporting nation. Unsurprisingly, considering its dominance in the Summer Olympics and international sports like basketball, tennis, and golf, the US blows away the competition in absolute sporting terms, but -- spoiler alert -- the best country in relative terms across all sports and also in soccer fandom is actually Norway.

As hinted above, a major flaw with Soccernomics is that it is largely Anglocentric in its analysis of club teams and very Euro-centric in the analysis of national teams. Part of the reason behind this makes sense practically -- Europe simply has better, more reliable statistics, both for matches and general national data. Furthermore, western Europe is the center of the game's knowledge network (think about the high demand across the globe for Dutch, German, and Italian coaches). Yet it doesn't take a genius to see the flaw in examining a sport where two of its greatest teams reside in South America. That's not to say they are ignored, but it's not sufficient to explain Brazil as an outlier by simply exclaiming it so and leaving it as such.

The big exception to this flaw in the book is the examination of Lyon in considering how to beat the transfer market. To those knowledgeable about soccer, this won't surprise much. Lyon have been a dominant team in France (though Bordeaux has finally broken their stranglehold domestically), while threatening to break through in Europe despite never splashing to sign big stars. Of course their system makes perfect sense -- buy young up-and-coming players who are likely to be undervalued, sell those same players at their peaks when someone offers you more than they're worth, always have young players ready to step into their place, and remember that center forwards are usually overvalued. There's more to why Lyon is so successful, much of it having to do with the city's particular demographics and fan history.

This is the one part where the real Moneyball analysis starts coming from the authors. Not just for Lyon (and Nottingham Forest in the early 80's and Wenger's Arsenal teams) as it pertains to the transfer market, but regarding a number of factors most closely correlated with successful teams in the English League. Transfer fees or player wages? Real Madrid will not be heartened. Is a team's league position correlated to its profits? What type of municipality (capital city, industrial or provincial city, or small town) produces the best team, and which will do so in the future? Are blonds valued correctly? Against my natural inclinations, Kuper and Szymanski say to stay away.

Of course to the reader the obvious is screaming back at them - Lyon has yet to break through in Europe, and some say they never will, while Wenger's Arsenal also have not won the Champions League (and it's looking more and more like the big money injections into teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, not to mention Man U is still Man U, will keeping them from winning the Premier League as well).

The above are just some of the questions the authors look at, and there's a lot of other good nuggets in Soccernomics. The examination of the existence of racism in the English League, an economic analysis of penalty kicks, a discussion of sport's effects on suicide rates and happiness, and an intriguing look at whether most fans are actually polygamists rather than diehards (which is surprising in countries other than the US, where you'd expect a degree of polygamist soccer fans) are all fascinating topics that are less controversial than those discussed above. Of course some also have less relevance to how the game itself functions on the field (now that racism is mostly gone from team selection). And an economist might love penalty kicks, but they'll never convince a true fan that penalties are a fair way to decide a championship. (John Terry is slowly nodding in agreement.)

I highly recommend Soccernomics for anyone who wants an engrossing read about soccer or even sports analytics, but just keep it in perspective -- the beautiful game is beautiful because of samba football, Barcelona's passing, and the great drama, not because you can statistically measure why Messi was the best player in the world or Barcelona the best team. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you'll just know it when you see it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Barca Among Greatest Ever Teams

Today Barcelona beat North American champions Atlante 3-1 in Abu Dhabi in the Club World Cup. Barca already had a historic season, becoming the first Spanish team to win the treble last year (La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League). But they just continue to win everything imaginable, simply leaving all in their wake.

At one point in 2009, after winning the Football League Cup, a.k.a. the Carling Cup, Manchester United were the holders of five trophies - the reigning champions of the Premier League, UEFA Champions League, Community Shield, Club World Cup, and lastly the League Cup.

Well, Barca looks like they'll do Man U one better. The Club World Cup final has yet to be played, and I'll be on vacation when it happens, but if the the blaugrana win they will hold six championships: La Liga, UEFA Champions League, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercup, European Supercup, and the Club World Cup.

Read that again. Just ridiculous.

And it will have all happened in one season proper (with the Supercups and Club World Cup following the previous season because they use the champions from the previous year). Yes Man U held their five trophies at once, but their League Cup title was really in the cycle for the following year.

Equally amazing, in scoring today, Pedro became the first person ever to score in six competitions in the same season. And I barely even knew of him last season.

With youngsters like Pedro, Bojan Krkic, Sergi Busquets, a 22 year old named Leo Messi , and 22 year old Gerard Piqué and 23 year old Dmytro Chygrynskiy in defense, not to mention that players like Andrés Iniesta and Dani Alves are only 25 and 26 respectively, they seem pretty nicely set to dominate for quite some time.

(For comparison at Real Madrid, Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Fernando Gago, Marcelo, Raul Albiol, and Lass Diara are all 24 or younger. Which set of under 25s would you take, meaning excluding Iniesta (otherwise it would've been an absolute no brainer to me that you pick Barca)? Tougher than one would think when you consider the general notion that Barca breeds their players from youth and Real Madrid sign up stars in their primes or just entering them.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Champions League Group Stage Results

The group stages are done in the UEFA Champions League, here is the list of teams advancing:

Group A: Bordeaux, Bayern Munich
Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow
Group C: Real Madrid, AC Milan
Group D: Chelsea, FC Porto
Group E: Fiorentina, Lyon
Group F: Barcelona, Inter Milan
Group G: Sevilla FC, VfB Stuttgart
Group H: Arsenal, Olympiakos

For those of you scoring at home, the teams break down as follows: 3 English, 3 Italian, 3 Spanish, 2 French, 2 German, 1 Russian, 1 Greek, 1 Portuguese, 0 massive surprises.

Yes there were maybe two or three small surprises. Fiorentina finished tops over Lyon and Liverpool, which was a surprise. But you'd have to be naive to have thought going in that Liverpool was a shoe-in to advance. They were so obviously flawed, and Fiorentina is better than most people realized.

Bordeaux advancing rather than Juve is also a small surprise, but under their current situation, again it's not a big surprise that Juve was knocked out. A good Europa run could be good for them. However, it was a bit of a shock to see them capitulate at home to Bayern. This blog on ESPN said it wasn't a surprise, and even I warned that Bayern could be finding form. And considering Bayern's firepower, a victory surely wasn't shocking.

However, I would like to point out, purely because I like pointing out blatantly absurd things, that the previously linked blog based the idea that it wasn't a surprise victory on the theory that the Castrol Index Rankings of footballers foretold that Bayern was far more talented than Juve. These "rankings" are laughable at best. All you need to see is the number one player - Thierry Henry. That's right. Apparently hand balls are the triple word score here. I didn't even bother with checking out how the rankings are devised other than seeing that it's supposedly based on how they actually perform in-game because I could pull names out of a hat and do better. Rafa Marquez is tied for #5. I almost puked. Luca Toni at #10?? He doesn't even play and Bayern is just dying to offload him. OK, granted some ratings are right (Messi and Ronaldo at #2 and 3). But then Gigi Buffon is ranked #163? That puts him tied for 10th in Italy among goalkeepers. Are there even 10, no 5 keepers in the world better than him right now? Anyhow...

OK, back to the whole no surprises point. So there are really two, maybe three teams here that you'd normally be surprised to see. Olympiakos stands out, but they were in the pee-wee group compared to the Barca-Inter-Dynamo and Juve-Bayern-Bordeaux groups of death. The only surprise remaining is seeing CSKA advance above the German champs, VfL Wolfsburg. Spanish apologists will be disappointed Atlético Madrid didn't advance, but then again they've sucked balls this year.

On the winning side, I was encouraged by Man U beating Wolfsburg at the Volkswagen Arena despite lacking a starting defense and playing a team of might mites. Still, Michael Owen scores a hat-trick and everyone in England suddenly wets themselves thinking they could have a second striker to use in South Africa. I will say I've been impressed with Gabriel Obertan even though he's been used mostly as a substitute. If they were somehow to prise Edin Dzeko away from Wolfsburg and preferred destination Milan, they could be formidable next year with young developing wingers like Obertan and Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney, and other youngsters Macheda, Walbeck, and Gibson down the pipeline. Center midfield reinforcements still needed though.

Finally, a shout out to David Moyes for getting Landon Donovan on a two-month loan for injury plagued Everton. Hopefully Donovan will get a fair shake with the Toffees and we may even see him play against some of the aforementioned Champions League failures in the Europa League. Good luck LD.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Champions League Group Stage - The Final Days

If you'd like a preview of many of the players who'll be featuring in South Africa in the summer of 2010, today and Wednesday provides a chance to see many of those key players.

This would be the last matchday for the UEFA Champions League group stage, with a number of spots in the knockout stage still up for grabs.

First, in group A, one of the big boys of Europe will be out of the Champions League as Bayern Munich visit Turin to face the Old Lady. Juventus is coming off a nice victory over Serie A leaders Inter over the weekend. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means, but Juve seemed to have grasped the importance of that match and played with the sort of motivation and determination that they need to sustain regularly if they are to challenge for any trophies.

Bayern on the other hand are unbeaten since Sept. 26, though you'd never really know that. They were expected to romp through the Bundesliga, but that hasn't been the case. And yet, even though they've been known for up and down play this season they could be gaining steam as they climb up the German table.

This match pits a number of future World Cup participants from a number of nations, but does that mean the match will be entertaining? I'm not so sure. These are two of the more inconsistent sides, both capable of playing attacking football, but Juve sometimes reverts to a more calculated approach, while Bayern have had some fitness issues to stars Ribery (out for today) and Robben, along with disgruntled Luca Toni out of favor.

An interesting match to keep an eye on will be Man U visiting Wolfsburg. Man U has played well recently, crushing West Ham on Saturday, but are in the midst of an absurd defensive crisis. The starting center backs are likely to be Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick, with Darren Fletcher also a possibility. Edin Dzeko and the Wolfsburg goal scoring machine will certainly look to take advantage of that as they look to ensure passage at the expense of CSKA Moscow (they need to simply equal the efforts of the Russians to advance with Man U).

Of the other big name teams, no one in group C is guaranteed through, though Real Madrid only need a point against Marseille, while AC Milan will be hoping to lock things up against FC Zurich.

The Inter-Barcelona group also has it all to play for, with the unlikely but still actual possibility that Inter and Barca could be knocked out in favor of Russian champs Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kiev.

Let's face it, most everyone is rooting for the big teams because we want to see the big name players face off in the knockout draw. But is there an underdog poised for an upset? The knockout stages could actually be populated with teams from France and Eastern Europe, as well as German sides that are strong but not as fancied as the English and Spanish sides. I think that would make for a very interesting Champions League, and it would give some players a chance to shine prior to the World Cup that we might not otherwise see. Of course that hope just means that it's going to end up business as usual (Liverpool's early exit not withstanding).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Wait Begins

Now comes the hard part -- for us fans anyway -- waiting until June for the kickoff of festivities. There's going to be plenty of time to sit around and pour over the matchups, as well as watching club teams to see who's in form and who's not, who's healthy and who's not, who's in or out of your favorite team's squad.

In a World Cup year everything becomes focused on that singular goal, in the US in particular. It's basically going to be a six month build up to the Cup. Even though I have my favorites in the Euro League, a lot of my time is spent following how the US players are faring, and with MLS being in hiatus and only really getting in about two months when the National Team will be getting together for their pre-World Cup preparations, the mind inevitably will have an eye pointed toward South Africa.

I'll get caught up in the Derby D'Italia for 90 minutes today, but really for all the Juve or Man U or Barcelona games I watch the meaning of the results, though still important, will somehow be secondary to the play itself. Especially for the Man U games (and even more so late in the season) I'll be pondering, does Rio look fit, can Jozy exploit him? Or, is Rooney firing on all cylinders, enough so to allow Man U to keep up the title challenge and to make England genuine threats?

Starting with the group I care about most, my quick thoughts on the draw:

GROUP C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia.

My brother was wary after the US was drawn with England because he feels the US just always plays poorly against England. That may have been the case before, but even in those cases England never ran rampant, and I can't remember the US ever having a true full-strength squad.

Still, the draw of Slovenia and Algeria that have the English and US fans very excited about their prospects of progressing into the knockout stages. I genuinely think the US can get a result against Fabio Capello's men, and I think most US fans would tell you the same. And while I think this World Cup is the most even that I can remember (there's not many push overs, maybe New Zealand, so there shouldn't be a healthy serving of Saudi Arabias to get thrashed 7-0 by everyone), the US should still be able to beat Algeria and Slovenia. I almost have to calm down I'm getting so excited thinking about being in a group that doesn't contain three serious threats. Let's just say I feel pretty good about it. Prettaaaay, prettaaaay good.

GROUP A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.

I was about to get slightly (I'm being nice) angry about the fact that Mexico somehow always gets an easy or manageable draw. What the hell? I suppose I shouldn't care, especially since they're just bound for more disappointment and loss in the second round. But this group is no cakewalk. Any four can advance, though I might give Uruguay the lowest chances. South Africa may be the lowest of the teams, and I don't see them advancing despite a better than expected on field showing, but never count out the home field advantage. That and having France makes this a tough group to call. I still like France here even if I wouldn't bet on them.

GROUP B: Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, Greece.

This will be a tough but very manageable group for Argentina. South Korea isn't the threat they were at home in 2002, and though Nigeria is always a tough out, they are no longer a leading light among the African nations. Greece play the most disgusting brand of football but aren't likely to get blown out, and their stifling tactics could very well frustrate and threaten a bumbling Maradona-coached side.

GROUP D: Germany, Australia, Ghana, Serbia.

Yikes. Having any four progress wouldn't be surprising, though the Socceroos are the weakest of the bunch and without Guus Hiddink's magic we'll see what they can do. Based on odds, my friend thinks Ghana is a good underdog bet to advance and actually win the Cup. I have to disagree, respectfully of course. Ghana is dangerous in the midfield, but they lack a dangerous striking option and I think they are weaker than previous years. Germany and Serbia will still like their chances.

GROUP E: Netherlands, Japan, Cameroon, Denmark.

Those beautiful, flying Oranje ought to make nice work of this group. Title-wise, I'm not sold because they still have some big chinks in their armor, but the Dutch should be fun to watch (and hey, all those orange jerseys, a beautiful sight in the crowd). I don't know much about Cameroon's current make up other than it'll be nice to see Eto'o at a World Cup. They traditionally are one of the better African teams at World Cups, and usually a little more organized than a team like Nigeria that was always seen as disorganized but highly talented. Denmark was very strong in qualifying and I would guess that their match against Cameroon decides second place in this group.

GROUP F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia.

Italy has to be very happy, because they lucked out on a draw that potentially could give them a nice passage to the quarterfinals (if they win this group they'd play the second place team from group E). However, they've been indifferent recently, and could slip up to Paraguay or Slovakia. I wasn't impressed by Slovakia even though they beat the US. The US lacked Donovan and Slovakia didn't show much attacking creativity or threat really. So I'll give Paraguay the nod as the other team that will advance here. Sorry Kiwis, I love Ryan Nelsen for winning a MLS Cup for DC United, but you aren't going far. Enjoy yourselves.

GROUP G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal.

Oh boy. Who's excited about seeing this group play out? First, Alexi Lalas actually made me laugh pretty heartily during the draw when everyone was sort of talking at once and he offhanded said, "North Korea, welcome to the World Cup." Not funny reading it now, but how and when he said it was pretty classic. And seriously, if they were a normal country that existed in color rather than in black and white, they'd look at this draw and ask, what the hell did we do to deserve this?

So, basically one pre-tournament favorite is going to be out before the knockout stages. I would love to see Côte d'Ivoire make a good run and get the entire African continent behind them. They have the talent and are being talked about as Africa's first true title challengers. But then they get hit with the Portuguese-speaking one-two haymakers. Can Portugal play up to its talent levels? Will Ronaldo remind people that two years ago he was so much better than everyone else on the planet that you wouldn't dare bet against him? Can the unthinkable happen and can Brazil be truly upset and knocked out in the group stages? I don't know, but I'm going to love finding out.

GROUP H: Spain, Honduras, Chile, Switzerland.

Spain either got a sneaky difficult group or a one that will be disappointingly easy. Honduras is actually somewhat dangerous, more so than Mexico of the two CONCACAF teams, but they could easily disappoint by just being happy to be there. The danger is teams taking them too lightly. If that happens they will spring an upset against the Swiss or Chile. Chile is a strong team that likes to attack, and I've bought into HalaMadrid's advocation of them as being a top footballing nation. They have every bit the chance the US does of advancing out of their group. But then there's the Swiss. They don't excite anyone, but they have a good defensive record and some decent talent in the middle, even if their best known striker is 30 year old Alexandre Frei. They're just one of those teams that can get results even if afterwards you think to yourself, how did they just win, they aren't that good. Any three can finish second to Spain.

So, get those earplugs (unless you like the sound of vuvuzelas) and get ready, the World Cup is almost here. Will it be a classic, or one to forget? I think it may end up being a very good World Cup. Until then, it's 6 months of watching and waiting and praying. (Lord, please please please let Landon Donovan and Tim Howard stay healthy. Thank you.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cup Draw In T-minus...

I suppose it's obligatory to post something in advance of the World Cup draw, seeing as it can practically make or break a nation's Cup hopes.

The big brouhaha has been over FIFA's decision to base things on whatever they find most expedient for their needs. In this case, it was using the October FIFA rankings and scrapping past World Cup performance to determine the seeds, leading to the Netherlands getting a seed over France. I think based on current form that probably holds, but let's face it, FIFA made the change to punish France for the controversial nature of their qualification.

Second, FIFA grouped the CONCACAF nations in the pot with the five Asian and Oceana qualifiers, rather than with the five African qualifiers. This practically ensures the US will have a difficult draw, since they will face a seeded team, another European team, and either an African or South American team. The key will be to draw a weak Euro nation (I'll take an order of Greece thank you) or one of the weaker African nations (Algeria please). If the US doesn't draw South Africa from the seeded nations, it becomes more likely that they will face an African nation rather than South American from pot 3 since South Africa cannot face an African team from that pot, leaving only two South American teams for the remaining 7 groups.

Interestingly, this article points out that FIFA's decision to use the October rankings actually put the US surprisingly close to getting a seed. The "if" was rather large, so if Portugal and France failed to qualify, and with Croatia already not qualified, the US was next in line for the seed. Of course without needing to somehow rectify the France problem, FIFA probably would have used some other scheme which would have had the US in its same position.

Still, there's no point in trying to do a mock draw, which I find a useless exercise. On the other hand, FIFA has a way of partnering the inevitable when it comes to things like political or historical pairs (England-Argentina and France-Senegal in 2002, USA-Iran in 1998). Unfortunately FIFA can't pit the US against North Korea, but we could see rematches with Italy, who has become something of a nemesis recently, or Spain, and what would be the money on Spain trying to destroy the US to exact revenge for the Confederations Cup?

Anyway, in case you're the last person on Earth to see the pots, here they are:

POT 1 - Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Netherlands, England, Italy, Germany, South Africa

POT 2 - USA, Mexico, Honduras, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand

POT 3 - Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

POT 4 - France, Portugal, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Barcelona v. Real Madrid

I spent all of three seconds thinking of a catchy title for this post. But let's face it - no further introduction is necessary. Barcelona v. Real Madrid says it all. The biggest club game in the world will kickoff tomorrow, Sunday November 29, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. ET from The Camp Nou in Barcelona. GolTV and ESPNDeportes will simulcast the match Stateside.

The historical and political context paints this match as a battle between the centrist capital and the Catalan metropolis. Barcelona's own marketing campaign feeds fuel to the fire, with its constant reminders that Barca is "mes que un club." But make no mistake, the game tomorrow will be played on the pitch, eleven v. eleven. And that's where the real stories are. The Spanish press has touted this game as a test of club philosophies - cartera (wallet) contra cantera (youth system). Uncle Florentino whipped out the wallet and bought the best. Barca, so the story goes, has bred talent for ages. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Barca has always stressed its cantera, and since Cruyff has carved out a footballing aesthetic very unique to the blaugrana. But the real story is that two of Barca's three European Cups came with this group. That is, Barca's golden generation is not a constant given, but we are experiencing it right now. As Xavi rightly observed at midweek, Real Madrid have been the victim of Barcelona's explosive success domestically and internationally, and were forced to compete or be completely eclipsed in the shadow or Barca's greatness. Of course within this metanarrative of this philosophical inquiry are those great players, whether purchased or created, who will decide this matchup.

The big names we know: Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Benzema, Iniesta, Henry, Casillas, Puyol, Sergio Ramos. And the small names, well we know those too: Xabi Alonso, Lass Diarra, Yaya Toure, Abidal, Valdes, Pepe, Alibiol. If Real were called the galacticos for their previous arrangement of stars on the pitch, then the number of stars on display tomorrow will form a complex new constellation in the Camp Nou. One or more players from these national teams will be represented tomorrow: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland (mostly on the bench).

But the big names are all question marks. Ronaldo is only just back from his fifty-five day layover with an ankle injury. Messi and Ibra too are playing from being on the mend. Benzema has yet to explode, and Kaka has been strictly underwhelming this season. Albiol will be a gametime decision, as will Messi. Will Henry play? But the individual question marks lead to recent form, an area where Barcelona becomes the clear favorite. Though a recent run of ties cost Barcelona the Liga lead, Real has been winning but just barely. Still disjointed and licking their wounds from the Ronaldo injury, only (who else) "el pipita" Higuain has kept the capital's side in it with his now old hat clutch goals. Real's last two performances, both at home, finished 1-0 to inferior opposition. They beat Racing Santander last weekend with the help of an incorrect offside call that would have given Racing the tie. Against FC Zurich at midweek Real fell victim to a worrying trend - consistently playing down to their opposition. Just as with AC Milan, Real played a formidable if unlucky first half and could have gone in 2 or 3 up at half instead of 1-0. But the second half saw a listless team almost give up a tie in the Bernabeu against a weaker side that eventually lost all respect for the merengues and attacked repeatedly for the tie. Quite the opposite took place the day before at the Camp Nou, where a Barca side missing Messi and Ibra put on a clinic against Serie A leaders Inter Milan. Even Mou admitted only one team actually played any football. Cruyff kindly reminded everyone that we didn't learn anything we didn't already know - that Barcelona plays about a thousand times better than Real Madrid right now.

The bulletin board material exchanged this week is too much to discuss in a novel, much less this post, and who knows how much is misquoted or hammed up for spectacle. The reiterative topics such as Guardiola on the 270 million euro spending spree, Ronaldo-dependence (a Catalan play on last year's accusation by the Madrid press of "Messi-dependence"), Barca's feeling slighted by being second and playing better, Pellegrini saying the two teams aren't so different etc... litter the four newspapers that have devoted almost an entire week to hyping this game up.

But truth be told everyone knows these three things:

1) A clasico is always special;
2) A clasico is completely unpredictable; and
3)It's being played in Spain - so "There Will Be Goals."

Both teams are setting out to attack, or so they claim, but we'll have to see how it plays out. For me, a tie would be a victory for Real playing away, not to mention the competitive flavor this result might lead to as Sevilla and Valencia get a chance to draw nearer to the two giants. That said, anything can happen, and anything probably will. So after the Arsenal v. Chelsea appetizer, join the world and watch the clasico, consider it a World Cup warm up session.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ben Olsen - A DC Legend Retires

Just want to say a quick few words on Ben Olsen, who officially retired today from DC United. Having played in the second most games in team history, the fiery and gritty Olsen was the heart and soul of DC United for so many years.

People still seem to forget that when he first came upon the professional scene from college that he was a dangerous attacking player who probably could have locked down the US right midfield spot. His loan to Nottingham Forest was hugely successful, with Forest supporters still asking about and remembering him. Unfortunately his second devastating ankle injury there ended that bright start to his future and forced Benny to reinvent himself as a gritty defensive midfielder. But I guess in the end, as a DC United fan I was fortunate that Benny came home and I was able to see him play out the rest of his career in front of me.

Benny won the MLS rookie of the year, two MLS Cups, including one MLS Cup MVP, and other MLS honors, but you can never really quantify what he did and meant to DC. He was the most popular player on MLS's most successful club, he played for and to the DC United fans, getting them fired up unlike no one else on the club. That and he was a pretty damn excellent defensive midfielder in MLS. It's the little moments and outbursts that stick out, with the crowd always chanting his name. That hairy little man had a stature far greater than his 5'8" body would belie.

Here's a clip of my favorite moment from my favorite DC United player, his hat trick against arch rival NY Red Bulls, including a great third that had us all on edge as the play was happening because we just knew the hat trick was coming.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Beckham's Penalty Shootout Curse

Even in MLS, Mr. Posh Spice can't catch a break in a penalty shootout.

After being a part of English teams that lost in penalties in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, as well as the Euro 2004 championships, David Beckham felt the sting of another shootout loss in the MLS Cup final. Beckham fired in his penalty, but saw Landon Donovan sky a Baggio-esque effort and Nick Rimando continued his PK heroics for Real Salt Lake, your 2009 MLS Cup champions.

The game was fairly decently played, particularly the first 65-70 minutes, even though quality chances were somewhat lacking. LA scored a well taken goal in the first half, with Beckham springing Donovan down the right, and Donovan providing a perfect cross to Mike Magee on the back post to volley home from close range. RSL answered in the second half after a shot by Yura Movsisyan bounced around and fell to Findley from about six yards out to the left, where he fired home.

Findley provided glimpses of why some people are hoping he can fill the void at US striker caused by Charlie Davies's absence. He has speed and always seemed to be something of a threat when he was running at the LA defense. Unfortunately RSL, despite having a lot of possession, particularly in the second half of the game, did not have a good creative type to provide telling service. Kyle Beckerman produced another quality display leading the midfield, but he lacks the imagination in the final third that was expected to be provided by Javier Morales, who was lost to injury in the first half.

Interestingly, Donovan may have portended his penalty miss in an podcast interview with ESPN's Sport Guy Bill Simmons last week. He said that usually he picks a side, but that sometimes he'll just sort of see where the keeper is guessing and change his kick to the other side for the easy goal. He made a comment to the effect that this can cause problems because anytime you change your mind late, you don't hit it as well and you get those shots that are up the middle. Rimando guessed to Donovan's right, which seems to be his preferred side, and Donovan probably tried to change where he was placing it, ultimately hitting a very poor shot that skied high. For US fans' sake, let's hope the usually spot-on Donovan got this miss out of his system now rather than if he's called upon in the World Cup.

It would have been nice to see Andy Williams clinch the shootout when he stepped up for his kick. He was something of a sentimental favorite to win for those he know about his trying year with his wife suffering from a rare form of leukemia. Unfornately that was not be, but he was bailed out when Edson Buddle stepped up for LA with a terrified look on his face like he was about to crap himself. Rimando saved, RSL made the clinching PK and it was celebration time. They showed Williams's wife in the box during the celebrations and she seemed about as excited as she must have been when she got her diagnosis. Would've expected a little more emotion there, no?

The final comment goes to Seattle, which everyone reporting from MLS Cup says the City embraced the final as a big time event, coming out in strong numbers (over 46,000), the best MLS Cup showing since 2002. Too bad it's still a turf field, one that seemed to cause footing problems with numerous players falling and slipping randomly as if sniped down. It'd be nice if a great soccer scene such as Seattle could also have an appropriate playing field. Still it was a nice event, only if next time it could have a kickoff that starts before 9pm on a Sunday night, Eastern time. The expansion draft is coming up Wed and then we can put MLS on the backburner with other big events coming up around the World in the next two weeks (important Champions League action mid-week; El Clasico, the Merseyside Derby, and Arsenal-Chelsea this weekend; World Cup draw next Fri).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Main de Henry

Soooo, where to begin with yesterday's "slight" controversy.

Before the video gets taken down, take a look (the replay shows it clearly):

Henry admitted the handball, claiming it was not intentional. His intent is certainly debatable, but I wouldn't question that because in the heat of the moment sometimes that kind of thing happens. It's not so much that the handball is intentional but more that you just aren't really thinking, it's all instinct and adrenaline, and only after your hand is touching the ball do you really realize what you're doing.

Certainly Ireland are aggrieved, rightfully so. However, I am going to straight off debunk a number of the Irish complaints.

The offsides. Of all the complaints, this is the most stupid, plain and simple. The players who were offside did not play the ball! Henry was in an onside position, that's all that matters! Then, when Henry played the ball, Gallas (who was offside when the kick was taken) was no longer offside because he was behind the defender on Henry. Simple, it's all on the video easy to see and it's in the rules, so I don't want to hear about offsides on the play anymore. Done.

France and Ireland should replay the match in Paris. Again, just stupid talk from justifiably bitter losers. If FIFA/UEFA were to set such a precedent it would be unheard of and would destroy the legitimacy of the sport as far as I'm concerned. Once you did it here, there'd be no differential between replaying this match and any given match across the world where some controversial call/no call, such as a clear dive leading to a penalty. It would be chaos... Now, speaking entirely hypothetically, what if the French were to say, we don't want to take the victory in this manner, we admit cheating and are willing to replay the match (or replay just the extra time)? I'd still be hesitant, though I might ultimately allow it. The reason even that is dangerous is again the precedence it sets. Now every time a controversial call leads to a result, the aggrieved team would be lobbying the team that benefited to do the same, and that to me isn't much more sporting than cheating in the first place. Part of what makes sports so great, and remember that sports are merely entertainment, is the controversy and talking points that are imbued throughout sports history.

It was Henry's handball that robbed Ireland of a place in the World Cup. I find this point technically wrong because Henry's handball merely robbed the Irish of a chance to continue extra time and try to win the playoff match in penalties. If the Irish were in fact advancing based on away goals or something, and then France's goal changed that result entirely, then yes, they had an actual World Cup place taken away from them. For large portions of the game, the Irish were taking it to France. France continued to show that something is amiss with this team. And Raymond Domenech continues to be an idiot (subbing Malouda for Gourcuff, and keeping Benzema on the bench??), yet the French were dominating extra time and looked like they might get a goal. Ireland had some great chances to put the game away during normal time and failed to do so, that's their own fault and it came back to hurt them. (I know I'm being harsh here, more on my true feelings on the Irish performance follow below.)

Henry is a cheat and this forever tarnishes his legacy. I think people are getting a little hysterical with the calls for Henry to fall in a ditch, etc. etc. He cheated, yes. Is he a cheat? No. There's a difference. Amado Guevara is a cheat. Henry cheated in this instance. Did the Hand of God forever taint Maradona? I say no. In fact, it's part of his mystique. (Maybe if you're English you feel differently.) Of course that goal may be softened somewhat by the fact that Maradona came back three minutes later and ripped through the entire team with probably the most famous goal in soccer history.

I think Henry has done too much, on and off the field. I think his admission of touching the ball, and the way he spoke with the Irish players on the field after the game, is key in somewhat easing this moment from being a huge black mark on his career to merely a negative mark. He even supposedly told the ref it hit his hand. The real question should be what the hell the referee and his assistant were watching/thinking?! Still, this doesn't completely taint Henry's career. It will become part of his and the sport's history, and it'll be talked about all summer when France play in the World Cup, and be reprised the next time qualification comes up for France and Ireland individually. Yet, Henry will still be Arsenal's and France's greatest goalscorer, and a World Cup, Euro Championship, and Champions League title winner, in addition to so many domestic honors.

I'll finish with two more analogies. To some people, Zidane's sending off in the World Cup final tarnished his legacy. I understand that a little because that was his final game and it could have been an unbelievable send off by winning his second World Cup, yet he let his famous temper get to him and he struck out so violently. But no one is using that to diminish Zidane's on the field accomplishments or his place among the all-time greats. As far as I'm concerned he's still the greatest player during my era (Ronaldo was close because of his excellent peak, though he definitely tarnished his legacy when he got fat and continues to play out a somewhat sad ending to his career).

Lastly, many of these complaints are coming from people who obviously have a bias for Ireland, or maybe against France. But if it was a reverse situation, anyone who claims that they would not only own up to it but have told the ref to disallow the goal or would ask for a replay are simply lying through their teeth or lying to themselves. You can say that all you want but you aren't in that situation, and I know you would be no difference than Henry or the French in the same situation. If the US was in the playoff against Uruguay and Clint Dempsey used his hand to divert the ball leading to the goal that sent the US through yesterday, I don't know a single US fan who wouldn't take the goal and qualification. We'd be just like the French. I'd say, yeah he used his hand, yeah it was wrong, yeah the ref should have called it, but such is life and such is sport, sometimes that happens. I wouldn't be proud and I'd know we backed into qualifying, but I would not call Dempsey a disgrace and give up our qualification. And you wouldn't either. So I don't want to hear it.

(And yes, I understand that if this happened to the US, I'd be absolutely heated and would forever hate the opposing player. I'm a biased fan, that's sports. So I'm not actually judging the Irish supporters. I feel for them, and having them in the World Cup would have been great. And let's face it, based on the merits of performance and heart, Ireland should have gone through with a performance in Paris that the UK press are rightfully calling heroic. Giovanni Trapattoni did a great job with that team.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Counting Down to the Final Field of 32

Today is the big final day of qualifying as 12 teams are vying for the final 6 spots in the 32-team field for the 2010 World Cup.

Kicking off first is Algeria v. Egypt. Algeria is best known for producing great French footballers (see Zidane, Zinedine; Nasri, Samir; and Benzema, Karim), while Egypt are the two-time defending Africa Cup of Nations champions. Most of their team is based out of Egypt, with the notable exception being Mohamed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund. Algeria actually has a squad with players from a variety of European clubs, ranging from Lazio and Siena to AEK Athens to Portsmouth and Hull. Still, even after telling you that its not like you or I would recognize any of those names. Egypt has the momentum from beating Algeria just three days ago, and I'd like to see them rewarded for their generosity in providing the US with the boost it needed to showcase itself at the Confederations Cup.

Up next is Ukraine v. Greece. Greece rely on a disgusting brand of defensive tactics, playing very disciplined and hoping for a rare counter-attack goal. Ukraine will feel confident of winning at home after the 0-0 draw in Athens with one-time superstar Andriy Shevchenko leading the forward line, while thankfully his namesake Andriy Voronin can't even make the squad. I don't really care who wins this match, but I think most neutrals would rather not have Greece advance considering their negative approach to the game.

Kicking off at the same time this afternoon are Bosnia v. Portugal and Slovenia v. Russia. I've been touting this Bosnia team with all their hitmen (Džeko and Ibišević), but they have received a massive blow with the apparent loss of playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, the man who makes the VfL Wolfsburg attack go. Even if the late reports of his injury absence are true, Bosnia can't really complain about the injury luck department because Portugal of course are playing without arguably the best player in the world (even though in terms of relative impact to the team, Misimović's injury hurts Bosnia more). Deco continues to lead the Portuguese, even though he's on the downside of his career. Youngsters like Nani and João Moutinho have yet to really make their mark, although Nani played well in the first leg. Still, Portugal has so many talented names across the pitch that they really should still qualify, but an early strike by Bosnia could set up a wonderfully entertaining and tense match.

I honestly can't really analyze Slovenia, not having seen them play ever and not knowing any of their players. Russia, on the other hand, have a host of quality players all over the pitch, and not just the attackers everyone knows (Arshavin) but also Igor Akinfeev in goal, who proved he is one of the world's top young keepers with his Champions League performance against Manchester United for CSKA Moscow. The X factor still has to be Guus Hiddink. I think few people would bet against the Russians with the Dutch master managing the sidelines. I'm not sure Slovenia will shut out Russia even though Slovenia had one of the best defensive records during qualifying (in a weak group where they finished second to Slovakia and above the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, and San Marino), and grabbing an away goal would make Slovenia's job that much tougher.

The final UEFA qualifying match pits France at home against Ireland. The Irish were incensed after their first leg 1-0 loss and have sounded confident that they can overturn their deficit. There's no need to rehash how France have all the talent in the world but have yet to put it all together. France also have something of a history of crashing out in big moments like these, and I wouldn't doubt that the Irish squads's heart and work rate will seriously test France's nerve. An Ireland victory overturning a deficit at the Stade de France, site of France's greatest triumph, would be quite famous indeed. Will it happen? I'm not as confident as the Irish seem to be. It could be the type of game where France look dominant in possession at times, but something like tied scoreline late could lead to the Irish dominating the ball while desperately searching for a late goal and France just hanging on and nipping an insurance tally that sends them through. In any case, you surely won't have a hard time finding plenty of analysis to sate your appetite prior to this match since the UK-centric soccer press in the US has largely been focusing on this match above all the others.

Lastly, tonight's final Wold Cup Qualifier pits Uruguay against Costa Rica in Montevideo, Uruguay. Having won the first leg, I really see no way that Uruguay doesn't finish off this playoff and beat the Ticos. The Costa Rica loss (OK, it was a tie, but it felt like a crushing loss to them) against the US really was the end of their World Cup hopes. They knew it. You knew it. Costa Rica is not a good road team, and while I think that the US-Mexico-Honduras trio from CONCACAF are talented and could give a South American team a tough go in a playoff, any other team from CONCACAF would have a lot of problems, and we already saw that in San Jose on Saturday.

With that said, I hope you have a TV or internet feed so you can sit back and enjoy the drama.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What We Learned This Weekend

We learned little this weekend, most judgments pending further outcomes.

We learned the US has some defensive depth because Jonathan Spector is versatile and can play center back in a pinch. And I hope we can get a chance to see what we have in Edgar Castillo on Wednesday against Denmark (especially seeing as Bornstein was poor against Slovakia). Building defensive depth is never a bad thing (though Clarence Goodson does not count as defensive depth).

We learned were reminded that the US has no attacking depth. In addition to an uninspired Jozy Altidore, Bob Bradley called upon Conor Casey, Eddie Johnson, and Jeff Cunningham to lead the attack. That's otherwise known as the striker pu pu platter. Granted with unavailable players limiting his choices, Bob Bradley didn't have much to work with. MLS playoffs kept Robbie Findley and Brian Ching from getting looks. And more importantly, Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden were absent, meaning that probably the US's next best option at forward, Clint Dempsey, remained in midfield rather than moving up top.

Also, can we just pray that Donovan doesn't get injured, because let's face it there is little creativity and menace to the US attack without him and if Jozy isn't having an A game. Holden can add that element, but again he wasn't there, though he will be against Denmark. Robbie Rogers hasn't hurt himself with his displays, but I don't think he's a starter and he's definitely not someone who should be expected to be the fulcrum of the US attack. And unfortunately Torres won't be playing Wed either. Feilhaber and Bradley controlled the midfield well, though some of that was due to the extreme defensive look Slovakia was playing, but they never really carved out a truly threatening final pass.

We learned that Brad Guzan looks like he will continue to provide excellent back up in the net despite still playing behind Brad Friedel at Aston Villa. His Cup heroics for the Villains are not flukes.

We learned that FIFA knows how to give out toothless punishment. Two month ban for Maradona for his explitive-laden rant means his can't be present at the World Cup draw and he misses one friendly match. Tough.

We learned that Uruguay will be joining said World Cup draw. Sure they still have the second leg to play, but Costa Rica has been in a free fall during qualifying and there's no way they will overturn a 1-0 home leg defeat in Montevideo on Wed. The World Cup is better off for having La Celeste rather than the Ticos.

Nothing was settled in UEFA qualifying, though we did learn another reason to hate the French, what with Lassana Diarra causing some sort of ruckus and being "unclassy" with the Irish. The World Cup would be better off having the Irish fans and their team's spirit there, but in pure talent, the country that gave us Michele Platini and Zinedine Zidane are the better bet. They outclassed Ireland in Dublin, and players like my man Joann Gourcuff, Thierry Henry, and Patrice Evra do qualify as classy footballers in my book. The 1-0 away win is a great result, and while the Irish won't go down without a fight, they have long odds at this point.

Russia also has some classy players, with Andrei Arshavin (in my book the main reason why Arsenal are looking like a real threat this season) leading the way. Having Guus Hiddink in charge pretty much guarantees some nice attacking football and probably a good World Cup showing if they make it there, but they need to be wary after Slovenia grabbed an away goal. Still, I couldn't name you a single player from Slovenia. Elsewhere, Ukraine and Greece played to a 0-0 draw, fitting for a match that is drawing the least amount of attention of all the playoffs. And Portugal will continue to make things difficult for themselves. While a clean sheet victory at home is usually a great way to start off a tie, the slender advantage means there will be stressful times in the second leg in Bosnia. I'd love to see one of Bosnia's superb strikers get a goal to really open up that match. All neutrals may want Portugal to win so Ronaldo can play in the World Cup, and even though I'm inclined to want the same, deep down don't we know that Portugal is just going to disappoint in the World Cup anyway?

Finally, we also learned our 2009 MLS Cup participants! Landon Donovan and David Beckham can get you a long way in MLS, so the LA Galaxy have to be favorites for MLS Cup. For the second straight year an unexpected team got hot at the right time to make it to the playoff championship, this year being RSL. Salt Lake has players to like (Findley, Yura Movsisyan, Kyle Beckerman, Clint Mathis) and Nick Rimando had flashbacks to his 2004 Eastern Conference Final penalty kick heroics (one of the great matches I've ever attended). I think it'll be a good Cup final, and the Seattle crowd should be a good one, hopefully giving the MLS season a nice send off.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Soccer Power Index

What would the world be without ESPN? Even with a sport like soccer, which ESPN does not often feature, though it is doing so increasingly, they can be trusted to provide us with more than just table scraps. Today's unveiling: the Soccer Power Index, a power rankings for national teams.

The Soccer Power Index, or SPI, is a power ranking of not just how a team has performed, but according to ESPN it is an objective measure of a team's current overall skill level and the SPI ratings are intended to be forward-looking so as to measure a team's relative likelihood of victory if a competitive match were to be held tomorrow.

The formula for devising the ratings is explained in detail here. A more layman's explanation of the purpose of the SPI is provided here.

Though the formula for the ratings is complicated, it's not arbitrary and convoluted; it makes sense. I won't go into detail explaining the system, but anyone knowledgeable about soccer would agree with how ESPN determines much of the formula. There is a lot of adjusting going on because in soccer, unlike most sports, who and where you play make a huge difference, and the ratings are not meant to rank past performance but predict future performance.

Home field advantage is much more important in soccer than in any other sport. Undeniably so. And goals for/against must be adjusted for competitiveness - not just the opposing team (Australia beating American Samoa 31-0 is really like a 4-1 victory between average teams) but also for the particular lineup of both teams. Makes sense that a victory over a B team is not as impressive as a win against a ful strength squad. Similarly, we know that a victory in CONMEBOL qualifying is worth more than a CONCACAF victory, and a Confederations Cup victory is more impressive than a Gold Cup victory. Interestingly, the ratings also use club results as a factor. So every time Barca crush someone via goals by Ibra and Messi from Iniesta assists, Sweden, Argentina, and Spain all benefit. Makes sense if you're evaluating current skill level. And even those numbers are adjusted to take into account the performance within the greater team - soccer is truly the most team oriented sport. The end result is a rating of a team's current skill and competitiveness level.

Though not shown in the ratings explicitly, the SPI formula essentially creates rough equivalencies between national teams and club teams. So Brazil = Barca, Germany = Chelsea (shocking comparison, I know), Sweden = Tottenham (about right), Bolivia = Sunderland (a little generous for Bolivia I think) and Tanzania = Derby County. Who is the USMNT equivalent? FC Porto. Style notwithstanding, the place in the larger order of giants of world football seems about right: dominant in their league/region, can spring upsets against any team in the world, can even advance from group stages and possibly another upset beyond, but not expected to win the whole thing (or really even be a semi-finals level team) - applies pretty well to both I'd say.

So what about the actual ratings? Brazil and Spain are 1-2. Can't argue there. England as no.3? Hmmm. But when you examine their qualifying results, the skill level and how they've played under Capello, I see why they're high, though this is the one of the teams that the SPI seems to have gotten clearly wrong in my eyes. I'd have them closer to 7 or 8.

The full top 25:

1. Brazil, 2. Spain, 3. England, 4. Netherlands, 5. Argentina, 6. Germany, 7. Portugal, 8. Chile, 9. France, 10. Uruguay, 11. Ivory Coast, 12. Italy, 13. Russia, 14. USA, 15. Serbia, 16. Cameroon, 17. Paraguay, 18. Mexico, 19. Croatia, 20. Ukraine, 21. Denmark, 22. Honduras, 23. Sweden, 24. Australia, 25. Czech Republic.

Some people might say the US is a little high, but really, this is about right. The USA is better than Mexico and Honduras obviously, and has beaten Sweden twice relatively recently. Maybe Serbia, Cameroon, and Croatia all have talents well above the US (players like Nemanja Vidic, Samuel Eto'o, Ivica Olić, and Luka Modrić) and I wouldn't argue if they were rated higher than the US, but as a team you'd have to say that a match between any of the four would probably be pretty close, with home field advantage or neutral field playing a big role in who gets the advantage that particular game.

The SPI ratings are also much better than FIFA's rankings. The US is not the 11th best team in the world, but 14 is a little more appropriate. Chile (17th in the FIFA rankings), Uruguay (25?!), Ivory Coast (19?!), and Serbia (20) are all given their proper due in the SPI, while Italy is rightfully dropped eight spots. Croatia may have a gripe, dropping from 8 to 19 between the two polls. But they also only finished third in their qualifying group behind England and Ukraine, only above superpowers Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Andorra. I also like how the SPI righted the fact that FIFA has Switzerland and Greece in the top 16 (absolutely no way) and Bosnia makes a significant jump from FIFA's ranking of 42 to 29 (as I've been telling people, Portugal has to watch out, especially with Ronaldo ruled out of their playoff tie).

Anyway, it's nice to see a ratings system like this that uses advanced statistical analysis and takes into account the unique factors of soccer without just giving credit to teams for beating up on lower opposition (BCS...). Plus, it's always fun to have one more thing to debate.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The State of Affairs in Madrid

Madrid, like most major metropolitan areas, boasts two professional football teams: eternal winners Real Madrid, and a band of malcontent losers known affectionately as Patetico Madrid, excuse me, Atletico Madrid. As these two historic teams prepare for their first derbi of the season tomorrow (ESPNDeportes 4 p.m. ET), it's worth examining how each team arrives to what would be the match of the weekend, were one and two in the EPL not squaring off Sunday morning. Regardless, the Madrid derbi is one to watch.

Atletico Madrid makes a "triumphant" return to the Calderon after their "victory" there midweek...when they tied Chelsea. "Victory" because that tie was the single high point of a terrible campaign so far, even though they were mathematically eliminated from Champions League due to it. But considering they're currently in a relegation spot, 18th, Atletico will be keen to continue their "run" of good form under new coach Quique Sanchez Flores and try to beat Real Madrid for the first time in the 2000s. Kun looked like the star he's been hyped up to be, but with Sanchez Flores calling this the game of the year for Atletico, you have to wonder if the pressure will be too much for the rojiblancos to endure, and it will be S.S.D.D. all over again. And while the team has improved significantly in the past two weeks under Flores, this is still the team that lost a 2-1 lead at home, in the 91st minute, against a nine man Mallorca exactly thirteen days ago. The coach has stated the team's objective is to be in the top seven by the Christmas break, and a win against crosstown rivals would break a huge drought for the team from Manzanares, and go a long way towards bolstering the team's ever-fragile psychology. But for the past four years every year has looked like it might be Atletico's, whether on paper or on recent form, but it never is. Truth be told, they've had the chance to win a derbi three times in that time, and botched all three opportunities in typical Atletico fashion. End result? Two ties and a loss.

Real Madrid on the other hand, must have a win to keep the pace with Barcelona. Less than two weeks ago, the alarms went off (as they're predisposed to do in Madrid) when Real lost 4-0 to third division outfit Alcorcon in the first leg of the King's Cup. It didn't help that the team had just tied Sporting Gijon 0-0 (on a wrongly disallowed Raul goal). Pellegrini's head was requested, with Marca's coverpage reading, "Leave Now." The press actually seemed surprised Pellegrini didn't just quit. Meanwhile Pellegrini played his part, reiterating his belief in the project, and not-so-subtly reminding the press and the organization that in the past five years, with ten coaches, the team's won two titles. A haul the Chilean categorized as "not much." The team redeemed itself somewhat against Getafe at the Bernabeu when the madridista faithful turned on the referee for expelling Albiol, and Higuain scored two (nearly three) for a 2-0 victory against the outnumbered home side. But it's not all smiles in Chamartin, as Ronaldo remains injured and while he should be ready by the clasico, the Portuguese national team is intent on him pushing to play for the two game tie against Bosnia. Qualification, it seems, could cost him the World Cup, considering the delicate nature of his injury. And at midweek, while Real looked excellent in the first half at AC Milan, the truth is they tied, and played a diluted second half.

And just as one knows that eventually Real Madrid will beat an Italian side, so it seems Atletico Madrid will eventually win a derbi. But will this be the year? Can Real afford it to be? With Barcelona within one point, Real Madrid desperately need a win to keep the pressure on. But the rivalry is fierce, and if desperation is truly the key, Atletico certainly have the edge. In the end, Real Madrid's form and talent should win the day, but you never can tell. And that's the reason derbis remain special. Especially the one played in Madrid, where it's not just a battle of history, social class, and football, but a battle for hegemony over what any good gato or gata will tell you is the best city on earth - Madrid.

Weird, Wacky and True

ESPN has the best footage of the series of assaults Elizabeth Lambert carried out on several BYU players in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference. Normally I could care less about college soccer generally, but this clip takes the cake. I don't know whether Lambert's punishment should be harsher or lighter because she's an amateur. My gut says harsher, but either way, between ten and fifteen games sounds about right for the litany of crimes she committed during the match. And for the record, since all she saw was yellow, a punishment should be meted out to the referee as well.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Over-coaching Does Not Work

The first MLS playoff tie is over, with Salt Lake defeating the Columbus Crew last night at Crew Stadium 3-2, for a 4-2 aggregate victory. The victory is a big upset for RSL, but probably the biggest subplot for the series was the over-coaching by Robert Warzycha.

Despite winning their second consecutive Supporters Shield trophy, the Crew were inconsistent down the stretch, finishing 1-3-1 in the month of October (including a CONCACAF Champions League match). The Crew were struggling to score, so Warzycha constantly changed lineups, leading to the inexplicable decision to sit reigning MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the first leg 1-0 away defeat. He claimed he wanted to find a new combo to spark the offense. What?!

Starting the second leg, all Schelotto did was score two goals. Of course Warzycha balanced out that obvious move by not starting Robbie Rogers. This type of decision making is common, and in MLS the perfect example is Tom Soehn, formerly employed by DC United. He may have had some unfortunate circumstances (injuries, extremely busy schedule), but coaches need to stop over-thinking and develop a best team (usually that means your best players) and ride them for important games. I think the playoffs qualify.

(By the way, the MLS playoffs are just stupid. Why have a conference system for the playoffs? I understand for the season due to the traveling a straight table would require, but the if you're not going to keep all the teams within their conference for the playoffs by giving the the last two spots to the teams based on best record regardless of conference, just do a straight up seeding of the top 8 teams. We now have RSL, a Western Conference team, playing in the Eastern Conference finals, one year after playing in the Western Conference finals! Great job MLS.)

Another coach who was long derided for his rotational policy was Rafa Benitez. He seemingly got things right in the Champions League, prior to this season anyway, but was also changing his squad so that they never gained any consistency in the Premier League. A thin squad didn't help, and at this point the squad is even thinner, with Gerrard likely needing surgery and Torres probably the same, even though he's toughing it out and playing injured. Benitez basically has no choice but to start the same 11 players because he no one to choose from. Not that that stops him from doing things like starting Andriy Voronin and constantly subbing Yossi Benayoun even though he's been Liverpool's most effective perform not named Torres recently.

Now I understand the need to rotate players some when you have so many games as teams like Liverpool and Manchester United. Certainly Alex Ferguson is guilty of odd choices now and then, but he's choosing between players like Anderson, Scholes, Giggs, Carrick or Fletcher, or between Owen, Macheda, or Berbatov. A little different from choosing between Andriy Voronin and Ryan Babel. Or picking the immortal Emilio Renteria and Steven "Blond Sideshow Bob" Lenhart over Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Not that I'll complain about Liverpool having a disastrous season, despite my affinity for the wonderful atmosphere at Anfield and the Kop for big matches and my man crush on Steven Gerrard. Monday Liverpool take on Birmingham at Anfield, and if they don't win that one, not only will they not be winning any hardware this season (not that they will even if they win), but there's really no way Rafa can stay on. Sometimes a coach's tenure just runs its course. He'll win elsewhere, just not in Liverpool.

Lineup selection and tactical choices very well could play a big part in the weekend's big match between Chelsea-Man U on Sunday at the Bridge. While a win could very well boost the victor's psychological edge in the title race, but not even being halfway through the season and only a two point difference between them, let's not make this out to be a title decider quite yet. It'll still be great theatre (I hope) and it's the match of the weekend (with the Sevilla-Valencia match another highlight, especially after Los Che have found their form in back to back 5-0 and 4-1 victories over Tenerife and Lazio). Chelsea have a fairly set best 11, but SAF's starting 11 could be telling as it's their biggest match so far this season and we don't quite know what his best 11 looks like. Let's hope he doesn't overthink it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

MLS Season Review

Tonight marks the beginning of MLS's second season, the playoffs. Expansion Seattle FC and their smug, coffee drinking fans take on the Houston Dynamo before the remaining three pairings start this weekend - Real Salt Lake v. Columbus, New England v. Chicago, and Chivas USA v. LA Galaxy (boy is MLS happy they get to have a playoff edition of the LA Derby -- note, it is not the Super Clásico! That is reserved for Boca-River and only Boca-River).

So, now is as good a time as any to review what was unfortunately a somewhat ordinary MLS season.

Columbus - 49 pts. For the second year in a row, Columbus wins the Supporters Shield on the back of ageless Guillermo Barros Schelotto. However, indicative of the MLS season as a whole, this year the Crew finished tops with 49 points, whereas last year they finished tops with 57. This was mostly a result of 10 draws this season, as there were an inordinate amount of draws throughout MLS. Parity is rampant and MLS is not the better for it. This is not the NFL, there are other leagues for the best players to go to for better competition and much better salaries.

Indeed, Columbus has a very good team, but they don't really scare anyone or really stir anyone's imagination with their play. Fits the city and stadium I suppose. Schelotto is simply class, and other than Robbie Rogers, the rest of Columbus is merely capable MLS attackers (Eddie Gaven, Jason Garey, Alejandro Moreno). The difference, other than Schelotto, was solid goalkeeping and a defense led by Chad Marshall (despite his missing some games due to injury and the National Team) and Frankie Hejduk (ditto). They have as good a chance as any team to win MLS Cup and repeat as champions, and it's good to see Robbie Rogers hopefully build on his key substitute appearance for the USA against Costa Rica.

Los Angeles - 48 pts. The Galaxy were a team of two halves. Their season started with a ridiculous 1-1-9 record. Just look at that. One win, one loss, nine ties. Like I said, parity. Plus there was this thing about Beckham and Landon Donovan and some book. You may have heard about it.

Anyway, LA finally kicked it into another gear in the second half as their potent offense kicked off and they finished tops in the Western Conference, tied with Houston on points. LA will always be dangerous simply because they have Donovan, who is undoubtedly the best player in MLS. No one in MLS combines his level off skill, speed, goal scoring, and unmatched fitness. Throw in Beckham's passing and set pieces, Edson Buddle being able to finish Donovan's and Beckham's passes occasionally, and you have a dangerous team.

The big surprise in LA is their vastly improved defense. Rookies Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza (Terps in the house!) proved to be mature and steady enough right out of college to contribute immediately. Gonzalez was less a surprise because he has the physical frame and potential to be a very very good defender, as well as being dangerous on set pieces. But watching DeLaGarza in college it was unclear whether his size and physical limitations would ever make him a decent pro. You couldn't doubt his heart, character, and reading of the game, and he's managed to do better than I expected.

People also forget that Bruce Arena is a pretty damn good coach. People may have soured on him due to his stint with the Red Bulls (as if anyone could look good with that team) and the USA's 2006 World Cup showing (let's be honest, he got a great performance against Italy, an unlucky game against Ghana where the ref screwed the US, and only the Czech game did the US look unprepared and out-coached). But give him a good team to work with and some continuity and he will surely develop a winner. Many are tipping them to win MLS Cup this year and I might have to agree.

Houston - 48 pts. Houston is pretty much the most consistently good franchise, finishing in the top two of the Western Conference in each year of their existence. They're very solidly built front to back with no glaring weaknesses. Geoff Cameron was one of the top defenders this year, and Bobby Boswell has revived his career there in the back alongside him. The key of course is their midfield trio of Stuart Holden, Brad Davis, and Rico Clark. Holden was always being groomed to take over playmaking duties, and when they traded Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto, they didn't lose a beat with Holden finally showcasing his skills as the lead dog.

If there is a weakness on Houston, it's a true goal scoring forward. Holden and Davis chip in goals, but the leading goalscorer was again Brian Ching. Just the mention of his name must make USMNT fans cringe... Brian Ching. He can hold up play and draw fouls and be a very good MLS player, without ever being considered a finisher. He's like the US Emile Heskey. Like Columbus, it was Houston's tied-for-league-best defense that really sets them apart, not the goal scoring, despite both teams having two of the best attackers in the league.

Seattle Sounders FC - 47 pts. Seattle is a "feel good story" of the year to many observers, what with their inaugural season leading to the playoffs, winning the US Open Cup, and having the best home crowd in the league. Coach Sigi Schmid built a nice roster. Fredy Montero was one of the most exciting players in the league, Nate Jaqua is like the MLS Peter Crouch, a beanpole who's not a true target forward but can score, Steve Zakuani could develop nicely, there's midfield depth, and Kasey Keller can still bring it in goal. Seattle is a beautiful city, they have a nice stadium, if still an NFL stadium with artificial turf, and they have the potential to become a team hated across MLS because they somehow think one season of strong fan support and an Open Cup title makes them the new Real Madrid or Yankees. MLS is more exciting for having them, and it's fun to hate on other teams. Good for you Seattle. At least they're a worthy target. Unlike the Red Bulls. They just suck.

Chicago - 45 pts. Blah. Blanco is good, but he may be headed back to Mexico. Brian McBride is a US hero, but managed only 7 goals and injuries hindered his season, even though he played in 22 of 30 games. Not much else to say, because like Columbus, they don't excite the imagination. They play a dreadfully boring and negative style, though maybe that will change if they decide to not bring back coach Denis Hamlet. Unlike Columbus, they do engender passion from opposing teams because they play a negative, thuggish style. Too bad, they could play better with their talent, and they have a decent crowd at Toyota Park.

Chivas USA - 45 pts. Chivas is an interesting team. They seemed like a young, up-and-coming team heading into the season. Preki had them playing an attacking style. Yet they took a step back this year. A big reason was Sacha Kljestan, who pretty much went into a season long funk. Zach Thornton turned back the clock with a good year in goal, and maybe the most important positive from the season has been the growing connection finally between the team and the LA Latino fan base. Rumors abound that they will look to further that connection with signings, including a Mexican coach, in the offseason. If Preki is let go, he'll immediately be a top candidate for other vacancies across MLS, and I think he'll be a good coach, just this Chivas team was not as good as believed. They finished about right for their talent.

New England - 42 pts. Their season was always going to be somewhat derailed with top forward Taylor Twellman out injured the entire year. Yet credit to the combination of Steve Nichol for being among the best at identifying talent in the MLS draft and the overall brilliance of Shalrie Joseph for keeping them competitive. If only Joseph was an American. Along with that flaming ginger, Jeff Larentowicz, they held down the midfield and got New England into the playoffs. I may have almost fought Jeff the first time we went out drinking at Brown University because of the New England-DC United rivalry, but he's grown on me and I like him as an underrated player who may very well get the Brian Carroll honorary call up to National Team camp at some point. Like LA, the Revs benefited from rookie surprises in defense when Kevin Alston (who played one year at my high school with my younger brothers, it's no surprise he's done well as a pro) and Darrius Barnes (Duke grad, yuck) stepped in after injuries to the back line and more than held their own. This is MLS's perpetual "almost" team - a winning squad that's never won the MLS Cup. Unfortunately I don't really see it happening this year or the next. They need just that new attacker to push them over the edge.

Real Salt Lake - 40 pts. Possibly the worst team name in American sports. I can't get over it. Nice young attackers in Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan backed up by hard working Kyle Beckerman. Findley has speed and could find his way into National Team camp with the US lacking a speedy forward after losing Charlie Davies, and I root for Movsisyan because of his last name. Beckerman has slowly over the years become a reliable MLS player and fringe National Teamer. I was never that impressed playing against him when I was younger (as opposed to Oguchi, who we knew was going to be a big time player), but he's become the heart and soul of this team. Don't have much to say about them other than when they played DC United, they never really tried to do much. I hate that.

DC United - 40 pts. Ugh. I have too much to say about them than can fit in this roundup of all of MLS. They were exceedingly disappointing this year because the talent is there. Unfortunately so was Coach Tom Soehn. He should be gone, though he's now using the excuse of injuries, a jam packed schedule with international tournaments and the Open Cup, plus his one year winning the Supporter's Shield with Peter Novak's roster to lobby for another season -- Kevin Payne, do not listen to him! I'm excited for the development of Rodney Wallace and Chris Party Boy Pontius. Santino Quaranta continues to be reborn and started off very strong, and I hope he can make his career turnaround permanent. Big change is still coming, with old folks or underachievers like Jaime Moreno, Luciano Emilio, Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, and Fred in limbo. I can't imagine Olsen being gone, even if he doesn't have ankles, and Moreno still provides a different element off the bench. The others -- gone. Good thing my last memory of RFK for the season was the USA match.

Colorado - 40 pts. Probably the worst playing style of any team in the league. Maybe not the worst team overall, but man watching them stinks. And that's despite the fact that they have Conor Casey, who for all the angst over his place in the US Team is still a prolific MLS goal scorer, with 16 goals this season. Another year of below mediocrity for this team. Owner Stan Kroenke also has ownership in Arsenal, so he must just be ignoring this team. Not that the MLS structure would allow him to do much to vastly improve this team. They could go out and sign a designated player. Hey, what an original idea! Hey Colorado, go make yourself half relevant.

Toronto FC - 39 pts. I'm never really sure who's playing for Toronto. They seem to constantly trade players. Maybe that's why they've never settled to become a good team yet. However, I think they make something of a leap next year. They have De Rosario, one of the best players in MLS (again, oh why couldn't he be American rather than wasting his international career with the Canadians), signed Canadian star Julian de Guzman (ditto) from Deportivo de La Coruña near the end of the season, have up and coming youngster Sam Cronin, and the universally despised but highly talented Honduran Amado Guevara. That's a strong midfield. But they've never really found a forward, hoping that O'Brien White will blossom next year in his first full pro season, having missed this one with an ACL tear suffered in college. De Rosario was good again, leading the team in goals, but you need a forward to lead your team in goals unless the midfielder is named Ronaldo. A new coach and another forward will be needed for this team to do better than they did this year. They have a great home atmosphere and a fun city and I think it'll be something to see once they have a team to match.

FC Dallas - 39 pts. Though equal on points with Toronto, we've now reached the dregs. A completely surprising late season run pushed this team to a more respectable level, even threatening for a playoff spot. The key was actually selling Kenny "Franken"-Cooper to 1860 Munich. He may have scored 7 goals in 15 games, but by jettisoning the big man, Dallas opened up space for Jeff Cunningham's ego to be the alpha dog striker. He obliged with a league high 17 goals. They scored the most goals in the league, but also allowed the second most. Will they ever be truly good. I don't know. Not that I really care.

Kansas City - 33 pts. Did I say Colorado was boring. Yawn. So are Kansas City. Claudio Lopez was among the quietest designated players ever in MLS, though he didn't necessarily perform poorly. Josh Wolf scored some goals, and Jimmy Conrad continues to play well enough to get calls for a place on the National Team, particularly with the current center back injury crisis. Still, I can't think of any young talent on this team. Let's face it, they don't even belong in KC. Move them to Saint Louis, OK. Done.

San Jose - 30 pts. Yuck again. Just not a good team. I had to look up who their leading scorer was - Ryan Johnson. Never heard of him? Neither have I. Darren Huckerby, with his English pedigree, was a bright spot in their inaugural season, but unfortunately for San Jose, he had surgery on a shredded hip and promptly retired. Add to that fact that Bobby Convey has fallen harder than even DaMarcus Beasley and you have a recipe for disaster. No real bright spots here.

Red Bull New York - 21 pts. Double, no, quadruple yuck. They don't even deserve a write up. 21 points from 30 games, and that's after a very good late season run after interim head coach Richie Williams took over. Basically their entire season was nothing but waiting for Red Bull Arena to open next year and hope they sign a second designated player to play in it. And since there is nothing worth talking about during the season, other than a continuation of probably the worst franchise in MLS, the real focus is on whether management will drop the interim tag from Williams's title, or will they let him bolt, in which case he'll surely be snagged up by DC United (where he won three MLS cups as a player) or some other team. In fact, what am I saying. Red Bull, you need a high profile coach for your new stadium and to handle potentially two designated players. You need European pedigree. Because if there is one thing the NY/NJ MetroStars/Red Bull New York lack, it's pedigree. And talent. And fans.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Liverpool-Manchester United Thoughts

It's a little late and there are other more current items to discuss, but I still think we need to go over the happenings at Anfield on Sunday.

Without going back over the specifics of the Liverpool "crisis" before the game, it seemed everyone was waiting for the final nail in the Red's coffin for this season, only for Liverpool to valiantly pull off the 2-0 victory. It was something of an unexpected result but it really shouldn't have been so surprising in retrospect.

Other than the team turmoil coming into the game, the only aspect that was really surprising about the game was that without Steven Gerrard, Liverpool still dominated the midfield behind a great display from the oft derided Lucas. Surely it was his best performance for Liverpool, though he was lucky to escape without a booking despite countless fouls against (though some were questionable, the persistent calls warranted a booking).

Nonetheless, there are a number of reasons why the result should not have caught anyone off guard.

-Liverpool swept a better Man U side last year. Rafa Benitez has shown the ability to get his team to win cagey matches against his managerial rivals, such as Jose Mourinho when at Chelsea.

-Related to the first point is the fact that Man U have been inconsistent against the other members of the Big Four in the past year. Last year they managed a win and two draws against Cheslea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. This year they already struggled to beat Arsenal and now lost to Liverpool. Of course they still beat Arsenal in the Champions League semifinals last year.

-Rio Ferdinand is struggling, and apparently Fernando Torres owns Nemanja Vidic. Rio has turned the corner on 30, which isn't necessarily a problem, but his constant injuries combined with his age and losing even one step has caused a massive drop in form. He's made some big blunders and was made to look bad chasing down both Craig Bellamy and Fernando Torres in two of the key games this year. Vidic is one of my favorite defenders, but something about Liverpool brings out the worst in him. Granted few have successfully dealt with Torres in the EPL recently, and Vidic wasn't playing poorly for the most part before getting caught for a second, inescapable yellow on Sunday. Even though they've only allowed 11 goals in 10 games, tied for third best in the league, there's a sense that something is amiss. If the Torres harassment doesn't permanently start weighing down on Vidic (which I don't think it will), we could start seeing a Johnny Evans-Vidic partnership.

-Man U's midfield needs strengthening. The big tactical error for the match was SAF's choice of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick was curious. Talk about a pair with no bite. Aside from the fact that Scholes is pretty much done as a significant impact player in the high tempo world of the EPL (when his passing accuracy starts going, you know it's time to put him down) and Carrick isn't exactly a midfield workhorse. Once again the absence of Darren Fletcher's bite was telling, and even Anderson would have been a better choice. This January, or more likely this summer, SAF is going to have to seek out a new central midfield fulcrum. He'll also have to figure out what to do with this next person...

-Dimitar Berbatov oozes silky skill and touches, but his playing style does not suit Man U. His skill alone allows enough glimpses that when he combines with Rooney and Giggs it must make SAF salivate, but it's too few and far between. Some people hoped that his mercurial nature and wonderful abilities would be the second coming of Eric Cantona, but King Eric had an altogether different, more aggressive approach to game. Even if he does produce, which he very well may, he will never really warm to the never say die approach of Man U. And with Michael Owen being next off the bench, SAF will have to hope Frederico Machedo and Danny Welbeck develop into regular first teamers while also seeking out striking reinforcements.

-Jamie Carragher's game is built of blood and guts, and it would have made sense for him to step up to the plate in place of missing captain Gerrard. Unlike Rio Ferdinand, whose defense is predicated more on smooth skills and elegant speed, Carragher is just a battler who throws himself into every challenge. He had been struggling this year but played superbly, and although he may have lucked out by not getting whistled on one or two borderline penalties, he epitomized the Liverpool team for the day. In an intense game such as this one, his ability to step it up is less impacted by his recent form, unlike his opposite England man.

Still, I think Man U will push Chelsea to the end. There are legitimate concerns, and unless the midfield stays healthy and improves, it could be a death by a thousand cuts without there ever being a particular moment where the season ever really goes awry. Still, one game being outplayed by Liverpool is not cause for great alarm. Ignoring the final goal while pushing for the equalizer, they essentially lost by one goal on the road at a charged Anfield, only really being tested once (a great shot and rebound that Van der Saar saved in the first half) other than Torres's goal.

On the other hand, I still don't think Liverpool will challenge for the title. I also wonder if such a good display today actually hurts Liverpool by masking apparent shortcomings. Rafa may feel confident in relying on Lucas, who despite his great match, I doubt anyone would put money on him replicating that display over the course of an entire season if he has to deputize for Gerrard or Benitez rotates his squad as he's prone to do. Aquilani is returning from injury soon, so maybe he changes the dynamic, and his precense with a healthy Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano could give them a very dangerous spine. A follow up this weekend against Fulham could be telling, same with Man U trying to respond against a pretty dismal Blackburn Rovers side at Old Trafford.