Monday, August 31, 2009

US News and Notes

Just when you thought you were getting into the swing of things with the start of the European season, along comes an international break, with important World Cup qualifiers looming. That of course means more unanswered questions about which US National Team will show up, the one that beat Spain or the one that's lost twice in a row to Mexico.

Well the US gets a chance to show its character in Saturday's match against El Salvador in Salt Lake City, followed by a trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

One way to improve the US team is to bring in better players, and many people, myself included, have been looking forward to seeing Jermaine Jones don the Stars and Stripes (well not literally, unless you were a fan of those '94 World Cup jerseys...). Unfortunately, it looks like Jones, as well as Mexican-American born left back Edgar Castillo, will have to keep waiting due to uncertainties at FIFA. Not to mention that Jones is still recovering from a broken leg.

The interesting thing here is that it's fully possible that neither player, and Jones in particular, will be able to play in a meaningful match for the US until after they've already qualified for the World Cup (hopefully). Jones is being eased back by Schalke, so it's possible he will not be match fit by the time the next pair of qualifiers roll around on Oct. 10 and 14 against Honduras and Costa Rica. If he is to become a key player next summer, it would be nice to see him gain the confidence and camaraderie of his fellow players during qualifying rather than seeing everyone else do the hard work only to have him step in for the World Cup glory, an issue that shouldn't be underestimated. I hope Jones is available for the next round of matches, though I also hope he's not playing in a meaningful match at RFK against Costa Rica, because needing points from the last match of the hexagonal is not a good situation to be in. Like Jones, I still don't know enough about Castillo either, but anyone who could upgrade at left back should get a look and fortunately he is match fit.

Steve Davis also takes a look at why the El Salvador match at Rio Tinto Stadium is not sold out yet. Of course everyone realizes the unique demographics of the United States in large part dictates where important matches can be played, but Davis also raises the interesting thought of setting up a rewards system, whereby fans that go to qualifiers get priority for World Cup tickets, something that provides an incentive for US supporters to attend more matches than just against Mexico.

And just to refresh your memory, here is the US roster for the upcoming qualifiers:

GOALKEEPERS (2): Brad Guzan, Tim Howard

DEFENDERS (8): Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Chad Marshall, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector

MIDFIELDERS (8): Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Robbie Rogers, José Francisco Torres

FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore, Conor Casey, Brian Ching, Charlie Davies, Landon Donovan, Robbie Findley

Remeber that Oguchi is suspended for the El Salvador game, meaning a likely pairing of DeMerit and Bocanegra, with Bornstein on the left (rather than as I keep calling for, playing Spector on the left).

A whole host of players are a yellow card away from being suspended from the Trinidad match: Dempsey, Donovan, Casey, Cherundolo, DeMerit, Bocanegra, Clark, Feilhaber, and Altidore. So basically the entire team is in danger and everyone of importance other than Howard and Davies needs to be careful. The yellow card rules right now are just plain stupid. In any case, the home match is a must win, so no one should hold back, but don't be surprised to see some of the above players substituted if the US grabs a lead. More on the El Salvador match and other important qualifiers around the world to come later this week here at FutbolNation, including the match of the weekend - Argentina v. Brazil.

Early Returns from transfer deals in Turin, Munich

This weekend saw the big four teams face off in the Serie A as Milan, Inter, Juve, and Roma got to test their early season title credentials. The results were in Sunday afternoon, and to no surprise it looks like it's a two team race again.

I was unable to watch most of the Milan derby, but for anyone who's an AC Milan fan that's probably a good thing because I'm not able to fully deconstruct how Inter tore Milan apart. I did see the nice goal by Thiago Motta set up by some splendid interplay, as well as Diego Milito capping the Genoa connection's scoring by making no mistake from the penalty spot. Oh and Gattuso was rightfully red carded, adding to Milan's misery. The 4-0 result is probably an accurate picture of the gap that currently exists between these two sides. With new addition Wesley Sneijder buzzing, Inter will now get to prove themselves against Barca and Co. in the Champions League.

Further south, Juventus put on probably their best display since the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. Winning 3-1 at the Stadio Olimpico is no easy feat, and Juve dominated from start to finish. I will admit that I'm suddenly very excited about this season, largely due to the Brazilian midfield duo, Diego and Felipe Melo. Together they put on a master class, outshining the likes of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. Playing in a 4-3-1-2, Felipe Melo was dominant and imperious in breaking up Roma's build up play and releasing Diego as the center of the midfield trio. At one point he even made a tackle in his box and stood up and flexed/preened like an NFL player does after every routine play. I laughed and wasn't sure whether I liked the energy he was displaying or hoped he'd never do that again.

As the player in the hole, Diego was simply a joy to watch, something that is desperately needed at Juve and in Serie A generally. Every attacking play moved through him and he always seemed capable of creating something dangerous. Diego capped his man of the match performance with a pair of extremely well taken goals. Felipe Melo got in the goal scoring action late as well, aggressively pushing forward and producing a finish that Amauri and Iaquinta would do well to emulate. On the bright side for Roma, De Rossi sure can strike the ball. Check out the highlights:

It's very early, but Juve could very well push Inter this year, and like Inter, they will get a good test of their European credentials in the Champions League group stage. French champions Bordeaux will be tough - watch out for Joann Gourcuff, he's only 23 and he's destined to return a big club (he spent one year at Milan, never really settling in). Bayern suddenly looks like a much tougher proposition, as if they weren't surfeit in attacking options already, by adding Arjen Robben, he of the two goal debut against German champions Wolfsburg. Does any team in the world now have a better pair of wingers than Robben and Ribery? I'm sure HalaMadrid can inform on however Real is lining up, but I'm sure whatever it is, they aren't attacking with two pure wingers the way Bayern does. Here's the video of Bayern's 3-0 victory.

United Finds Unlikely Victory

This weekend's premier EPL matchup didn't lack for drama, but it did lack a just result. Arsenal played better football and created more chances, but a penalty and an own goal saw United to a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.

Arsenal's goal came on a blistering strike from Andrei Arshavin. Impressive though it was, United keeper Ben Foster should have done better. That's par for the course for Foster, who simply doesn't play with world-class consistency the way the injured Edwin van der Sar does, though Foster does have flashes of brilliance. Arshavin's goal came just after there were questions of a penalty after Darren Fletcher's totally reckless challenge on the Russian in the box. Fletcher may have nicked the ball with his knee, which might have been the saving grace in the referee's mind. Earlier in the half Van Persie had a fantastic chance deflected away by Evra, and Arshavin had sent another shot just wide. Arsenal's lead was well-earned, and they easily could have added another goal.

The second half was more of the same in the opening moments, with Arshavin beautifully setting up Van Persie. This time Foster kept United in match with a fantastic back leg kick save that was purely instinctual. His counterpart Manuel Almunia managed to do the opposite a few minutes later when he rashly brought down Wayne Rooney after Rooney sent the ball by. Wenger later described the penalty as "Old Traffordish", and it does appear that Rooney anticipated the contact a bit. That said, Rooney likely would have gone down regardless, and Almunia's challenge completely missed the ball. That's a penalty whether or not Rooney made the most of it, and comparing it to Eduardo's total fabrication is ridiculous. Matters only got worse after Rooney hammered home the penalty opportunity, when a free kick saw Abou Diaby head the ball into his own net to put Arsenal behind for good. Diaby wasn't truly pressured, so his error was particularly egregious. United had two goals despite creating very little in the game, and were content to sit back with the lead. Having survived Van Persie's free kick coming off the crossbar, United even survived Arsenal picking the ball out of the net, when Gallas was (rightfully) adjudged to be offside and part of the play. To add to the indignity of it all, Wenger was then sent off in the final moments, though he has since received an apology. Little solace for Wenger, no doubt.

Wenger hasn't cooled down since the match, accusing Manchester United of "anti-football" for their persistent fouling. Wenger particularly focused on Fletcher, who committed six fouls while not picking up a booking, not to mention the penalty call that wasn't for tackling Arshavin. Wenger probably has point about Fletcher, though Van Persie also committed six fouls (but saw yellow), and about singling out Eduardo for diving when there are plenty of diving incidents to go around. Hopefully instead of practicing selective enforcement, UEFA will actually attempt to punish diving after the fact in order to discourage the practice. Ironically, the most blatant dive I saw this weekend was...Eboué for Arsenal, who was rightfully booked for his cynicism. Wenger should remove his focus from UEFA and focus on his side. As wonderfully as they've played, they managed to give away three crucial points at Old Trafford through unforced mistakes. Fortunate as United were, finding ways to win games they shouldn't is part of what makes them what they are. The young Gunners could use a little of that fortitude.

Despite the three points, Man U have their own problems. They've really only played one good half, when they scored the five goals against Wigan. Otherwise they've slogged through a match against newly promoted Birmingham, lost to Burnley, and been out-played by Arsenal at home. Their nine points are mostly the result of luck and guile. No one has come close to filling the Cristiano Ronaldo-sized hole in the lineup, with Valencia and Nani showing only inconsistent quality. Even Sir Alex's tactics were odd Saturday, leaving the effective if not spectacular Berbatov on the bench and playing Rooney alone up top. Despite the victory, it was hard to say this was a success, as Rooney wandered alone up front and created very little, Almunia's mistake on the penalty notwithstanding. Nor did this defensive alignment prevent Arsenal from creating their own quality chances. It was almost as if the lineup indicated Ferguson was afraid of Arsenal, something one would never expect from United at home (perhaps barring a visit from Barcelona, or now Real Madrid).

Elsewhere this weekend, Chelsea continues to roll on with an easy 3-0 victory over Burnley. At the moment Chelsea have beaten Hull, Sunderland, Fulham and Burnley, all teams that seem destined for the bottom half of the table. So perhaps one shouldn't be too impressed just yet. But Chelsea have taken a veteran, business-like attitude to their matches that serves them well. Chelsea are probably title favorites for the moment, but there's plenty more to learn about them. In similar fashion, though not quite as impressively, Manchester City continue to roll on thanks to Adebayor's rebirth, his goal the lone tally in a 1-0 victory at Portsmouth. Adebayor claims the City fans have made him a "special player." No doubt Arsenal fans are thrilled. And rounding out the still-perfect sides, Tottenham made it four wins in as many matches with a last minute strike from Aaron Lennon to defeat Birmingham 2-1. But the victory was marred by the injury to midfielder Luka Modric, who has a broken leg and is out at least six weeks. Spurs are already short in midfield depth, so it's hard to imagine their current place atop the table lasting much longer. But after last year's disaster start, it's hard for Spurs to complain.

Liverpool's title chances avoided (another) early disaster when they came back to win 3-2 at Bolton. Both of Bolton's goals were the result of some fairly pathetic defending. Zone marking was again partly to blame, but the real culprit was the willingness of the Liverpool players to stand there ball-watching. A high school coach would have been embarassed by the display. Liverpool did show resiliency, though not before they benefited from the sending off Sean Davis in the 54th minute. Davis grabbed Lucas in the first half, then tripped him from behind in the to earn the second booking. The trip appeared to be unintentional, so the booking was perhaps harsh, but it certainly stopped the threat and Davis never had any prayer of being near the ball. After Glen Johnson scored in the first half, Torres and Gerrard found answers in the second half. Torres was set up by a gorgeous chested ball from Kuyt, while Gerrard's half volley from 15 yards was trademark Stevie G. A day of survival for the Reds, who still haven't found their form.

Aston Villa appear to have found momentum from their shock victory at Anfield, dispatching a struggling Fulham side 2-0. And Everton finally found a result in a 2-1 victory over Wigan, finding three points after earning a 90th minute penalty. It still wasn't exactly impressive for a side with European aspirations. At least Everton will get Fulham after the international break, who look even worse. The two most interesting fixtures two weeks from now will be United traveling to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham, and Manchester City facing their first real test by hosting Arsenal. Attacking football, talented players, teams with something to prove: the City-Arsenal fixture should provide high entertainment.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saturday Previews

It's a big football day today with one blockbuster match in England, Spain, and Italy respectively. Check the FutbolNation "What to Watch and Where" (right panel) for game times and channel listings.

The first match of the day could be the biggest: Manchester United v. Arsenal. Wenger's boys travel to Old Trafford to take on a Manchester United side that has stumbled at the start of the season despite their strong second-half showing against Wigan. Meanwhile the Gunners have gotten off to a smashing start, pummelling their opposition into submission. Both teams will be missing key players, with Ferdinand and Cesc losing their personal fitness battles. There's no reason to believe that both these teams won't be in the title race April, and the three points up for grabs today could signal a momentum shift for either side. Arsenal's youngsters could be exposed, or Manchester United's cracks could be, as Valencia, Berbatov, and Nani don't appear ready to cover all the roles Ronaldo played for the side.

Overall, the game is of much greater importance to Manchester United than to Arsenal. Having left points on the table early, and playing at home will force United to go after the game. Add to that this week's Champions League draw that will see United travelling to Turkey and Russia, and facing worthy opposition in a tough Wolfsburg side, and United won't be afforded much slack between now and September, domestically or in Europe. Arsenal's draw, on the other hand, is easy enough that Arsene will be tempted to run experimental youth sides and probably still finish first in the group. A lengthier preview found here. A brief history of Ferguson and Wenger's particular "relationship" here. Lineups, injuries, and historical notes, here. Finally, the Telegraph puts together a nice visual history of the matchup here.

My prediction: Manchester United 3 - Arsenal 2

Others would argue the biggest game of the day is actually the Milan derbi. Certainly in a strictly historical sense it is the biggest game of the day. But coming so early in the season it lacks the league-wide impact a later matchup might have. And the decline of the Serie A has been well covered here at FutbolNation by ARF. Nevertheless, the match remains a worldwide event and one Inter needs to win as it couldn't get past a draw against first division newcomers Bari last week. Indeed, Inter's first official match, the Italian Super Cup saw them go down to Lazio, so the interistas will be expecting great things from their side. Meanwhile, AC Milan, after a disastrous preseason, game out firing against Siena last week, and find Ronaldinho in his self-proclaimed "best moment" in Italy.

The side stories in this matchup are worth mentioning as well. While Ronaldinho may finally be back on the ascent, the Eto'o-Milito strikeforce has not quite exploded as anticipated (yet). And let's not forget that the Ronaldinho-Eto'o rift played a part in the demise of that spectacular 2005-06 Champions League winning Barcelona side. Unfortunately for Inter, their Real Madrid-brokered Dutch import, Sneijder, will not be playing today. AC Milan's Real Madrid-brokered Dutch import, Huntelaar, will be. What it all means, as usual, will be determined at the San Siro. The man to watch is ex-Madrid, ex-Barcelona man Samuel Eto'o. Always a big game player, I expect him to find the back of the net today.

Prediction: AC Milan 1 - Inter Milan 2.

The biggest game of the day for me is, shockingly, the Real Madrid v. Deportivo la Coruna home opener. It's the first matchday for la Liga, the best league in the world (Doubtful? I proved it in this post, ace) and looks to be an exciting one. Deportivo wants to return to the dizzying heights reached during the magical decade between 1994 and 2005 when the Gallicians participated in five consecutive Champions Leagues (2000-2005), reaching the semifinals in 2003-04, won a Spanish League (1999-2000), two King's Cups (1994-95, 2001-02), three Spanish Super Cups (1995, 2000, 2005) and earned several second place League finishes (1993-94, 1994-95, 2000-01, 2001-02).

Real Madrid...well, I suppose the past three months have served as a bit of a preview of what's going on there. Let's just say that except signing Ribery, Real did everything it could to build a team equipped to run with a history-making, overpowering and dazzling Barcelona side. Of the eight signings, seven will start today (Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Albiol, Arbeloa, Garay). And they need to score early, because the Bernabeu is not for the faint of heart. The madridista faithful will be expecting a show, and I expect they'll turn on the team if it's 0-0 at half. It's the name of the game when you spend 252 million euros and only bring in 90. People expect a 162 million euro investment to show on the pitch.

Prediction: Real Madrid 4 - Deportivo 1.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Europa League Draw Set

A day after the Champions League groups were drawn, the inaugural Europa League groups were set today. There are 12 groups of 4 teams, playing a double round robin, mirroring the Champions League. The top two teams in each group advance, at which point the 8 third place finishers from the Champions League groups will join them. There are some very interesting groups:

Group A
Dinamo Zagreb
FC Timisoara

Ajax will like their chances here, with Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb. Anderlecht have a storied European history and will not be an easy out either.

Group B
Slavia Prague

This is a killer group. Valencia is an elite team and will be favored to advance far in the competition. However, their group is stacked four deep. Lille may be the weakest team in the group, Slavia is only two years removed from being in the Champions League, and Genoa is a talented, attacking squad despite losing their top players over the summer to Inter.

Group C
Hapoel Tel Aviv
Rapid Vienna

Hamburg will like their draw here. Celtic have a strong chance of advancing, though Rapid Vienna may be a tricky proposition for the Scots.

Group D
Sporting Lisbon
Hertha Berlin
FK Ventspils

Another strong group, with Sporting, Heerenveen and Hertha all capable of advancing. Sporting just missed out on the Champions League, losing their playoff to Fiorentina. Heerenveen has a long history of employing an attacking 4-3-3, though they are fragile in the back. Hertha, interestingly enough, apparently are so good that they have Kaka sitting on their bench. Not that Kaka.

Group E
FC Basel
CSKA Sofia

This will be an interesting group, with Roma strong favorites, but from there on out it could be any of the remaining three teams finishing second. Fulhamerica will not be pleased with having to travel to Sofia. Basel is quite a pleasant city however.

Group F
Dinamo Bucharest
Sturm Graz

Greek side Panathinaikos facing off against Turkish side Galatasaray is one of the highlights of the Europa League group stage. Those ought to be intense matches. The Romanian league isn't the worst, so Dinamo Bucharest won't be the worst either. Sturm Graz filed for bankruptcy three years ago, so how good can they be?

Group G
Levski Sofia
Red Bull Salzburg

Villareal and Lazio will be strongly favored here. Levski Sofia have had their moments in Europe but I won't pretend to know about them. Apparently Red Bull focuses all their resources on winning that impossible goal, the Austrian Bundesliga, while disregarding their MLS outfit. Let's predict they don't get far.

Group H
Steaua Bucharest
FC Twente
FC Sheriff

Fenerbahce has spent big in recent years to build a strong team, evidenced by their surprise run to the Champions League quarter finals in 2007-08. They're the big boys here, along with Steaua, the other half of Bucharest's two football powers. FC Twente for those who don't know is managed by English cast-off Steve McClaren. Finishing second in the Eredivisie is a very nice accomplishment. Getting embarassed 6-0 by Arsenal in the Champions League qualifying playoffs, not so much. Let's hope FC Sheriff plays Bob Marley at its home games.

Group I
AEK Athens
BATE Borisov

Another tricky goup. The Portugeuse giants spent big this summer bringing in some young Brazilian future stars as well as Javier Saviola, whose speed and quickness made him one of the most dangerous players on Winning Eleven despite being on Barca's bench. Everton are a question mark after their mixed displays so far this early season, AEK Athens will provide a tough road match for all, and BATE made it to the Champions League group stage last season, so they could be fiesty as well.

Group J
Shakhtar Donetsk
Club Brugge
Partizan Belgrade

Shakhtar are the defending champions, having won the final UEFA Cup. They will be heavy favorites to advance. Partizan and Toulouse will be tough outfits making this another good group, with any team capable of advancing.

Group K
PSV Eindhoven
FC Copenhagen
Sparta Prague
CFR Cluj

PSV has historically been one of the big boys in the Netherlands and they usually put in a very good showing in Europe, traditionally in the Champions League. Last season saw a much weaker team and they are no sure thing to advance this season. They also have Carlos Salcido, so I'll be rooting against them. Sparta has produced quite a few notable Czech footballers over the years, though you probably never heard of them until after they left Prague. Cluj shocked everyone last year when they beat Roma and tied Chelsea in the Champions League group stage, so even I would venture to say they shouldn't be taken lightly.

Group L
Werder Bremen
Austria Vienna
Athletic Bilbao

Werder Bremen, last year's beaten UEFA Cup finalists, will be the heavy favorites in Group L, the 12th and final group. Austrian Vienna finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga, so I bet they won't be scaring anybody. Hala Madrid will tell you that Bilbao will be reaching the semifinals of this competition by virtue of hailing from Spain, and while that may be a stretch, I'm inclined to think they can progress comfortably here. Nacional is famous for producing Cristiano Ronaldo. However, they averaged 2,000 fans a game in their 5,000-seat stadium in Portugal last year. The University of Maryland does better than that.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And the Pendulum Swings: La Liga Rules the World - Again

Oh, it's time for this one. I've been anxiously anticipating writing this post. Make sure you've got some time for the cathartic unloading of resentment I'm about to drop on the Premiership-ophiles out there. La Liga starts this weekend, and what better time to tell you why it's the best league in the world than before any games have been played?

After three years of hearing EPL fans announce their supremacy to the four corners of the world, hitching their arguments to three consecutive years with three of four Champions League semifinalists, finally, at long last, La Liga has returned to its rightful place in world football - the pinnacle, the apex, the zenith. The past three years have seen me grasping at straws defending la Liga. Barcelona's undeniable class and a superior middle class of teams were my calling card in these debates. Sevilla's consecutive Europa Cups, and parity among quality sides like Villarreal, Valencia, and Atletico Madrid were needed to mask a poor Real Madrid side who had underperformed dramatically in Europe while contending in Spain. Throw in quality sides like the Euro-Getafe that gave the mighty Bayern Munich all they could handle in the Europa Cup, and Espanyol who lost a Europa Cup final to Sevilla, and I was always willing to go to bat for la Liga as a better all around league.

Not to mention the drastic fall-off of EPL sides beyond the Big Four, with talent-starved teams like Everton, Aston Villa, or Tottenham occupying spots five through seven. Where's their David Villas, Luis Fabianos, or Kun Agueros? That's right - they don't have them. And then, of course, there was my trump card - style, technique, grace, or tiqui-taka as the Spanish call it. Even the worst Liga team attacked, triangulated a path towards goal, and played attractive champagne football. Turn on a Mallorca v. Racing Santander I'd say, and tell me you don't have fun. Then watch Wigan v. Stoke, and wake me up when I fall asleep after the 47th long ball upfield.

But, at the end of the day, Europe was always the final arbiter of quality. Despite Barcelona's historic rise, the truth was that Real Madrid has struggled mightily in recent years, and managed to win la Liga with little more than testicular fortitude, Higuain, Casillas, and Robben. So what's changed, you ask? Shouldn't I wait to write this in May, once Champions League has shaken out? Of course not. That'd be silly, and it would deny me the chance to write another post then about how right I am now. Plus, the EPL's own players have seen the writing on the wall this summer. Torres still thinks the EPL is better, but Ferdinand concedes la Liga is better.

There is no debate that the EPL and la Liga are vying for the top spot in world football leagues. Italy is still rebuilding after the match-fixing scandals, and their economic woes. Germany may or may not jump over their southern competitors, but lack the number of quality sides to compete with England or Spain. So how do I know la Liga is better than the EPL? Easy.

1) Better football. The foundation of la Liga is attacking, champagne football. Fun to watch and highly technical, these tenets of the league as a whole have bolstered la Liga in the past few lean years. This mentality remains, and will remain. Less direct and aggressive than its English counterpart, the only thing it envies the EPL is sheer velocity, a product of the EPL's direct style. The Spanish prefer to "controlar los tiempos" that is to "control the time" or manage the pace and rhythm of the game. I prefer it too.

2) La Liga kept its stars. World class players such as Kun Aguero, Diego Forlan, David Villa, David Silva, Cazorla, Luis Fabiano, and Frederic Kanoute all stayed on Spanish shores. Arguably Samuel Eto'o was the only world class player to leave la Liga this year - and he went to Italy. So Valencia, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla will all build on their past successes with largely identical teams composed of elite talent. Villarreal - well they never had stars, but always achieved well above their lot in life, and I expect that to continue. And Barcelona - well, last I checked Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, and Dani Alves still play for the blaugrana. La Liga's only top losses were Eto'o and Robben. Otherwise, stability reigned in Spain's export market this summer.

3) An influx of stars and quality. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Xabi Alonso, and Ibrahimovic were the biggest names of the summer. In Ronaldo the EPL saw its brightest light find his way to Spain. Brazilian star Nilmar joined Villarreal. A series of lesser-known EPL players found their way to Spain as well: Jermaine Pennant, Alvaro Arbeloa, and Didier Zokora. Throw in some transfers whose footballing may be overshadowed by their goegraphical marketing reach, such as Nakamura, Manucho, and Boateng, and la Liga's visibility is on the rise too. Jozy Altidore is the only significant loss in this respect, but he'll be back at Villarreal soon enough. The EPL meanwhile, has largely cannibalized itself. Manchester City's big signings all came from the EPL. Manchester United signed Valencia from Wigan and Owen on a free transfer. Arsenal signed no one of great consequence. The fact is, in a list of the top ten players in the world - most are in la Liga. Ronaldo, Messi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Villa, and Aguero. The EPL has Rooney, Gerrard, Drogba, Cesc, Ferdinand, Torres and Lampard. Ribery looks set for Spanish sun next summer, as does Cesc. But we need not go that far - even now, la Liga's burgeoning superiority is apparent.

Don't get me wrong - the game's still played on the field. And la Liga has to prove its superiority there. But when la Liga was a cut below, I liked to remind the EPLites surrounding me that these things tend to be cyclical (something I'll promptly forget when four Spanish teams make the Champions League semis). It seems that the pendulum is swinging back towards the Mediterranean, and a chapter is closing on the EPL. The Big Four will compete in Europe, no doubt. But with la Liga looking to field Barcelona and Real Madrid, plus Sevilla, Atletico, Valencia, and Villarreal la Liga looks to have the best elite teams, the best upper middle class, and the best players. What more do you want? Real Madrid lifting their tenth European Cup in the Bernabeu over a weeping Puyol? Just wait for it. Valencia winning the inaugural Europa Cup. No prob. The EPL can have the marketing titles, Spain will settle for the footballing ones. And believe me when I tell you the European silverware is postmarked for somewhere in Spain this year. I'll leave those ridiculous arguments about the middle class and cycles to the EPL. Loser talk if you ask me.

Champions League Draw

Hot off the presses, the Champions League draw is out. Group-by-group:

Group A
Bayern Munich
Maccabi Haifa

Bayern Munich and Juventus will be favorites to go through, but will have to deal with Bordeaux, which won the French Ligue 1 for the first time in a decade last season. Maccabi Haifa were the first Israeli team ever to qualify for the Champions League and return this year, but not much will be expected.

Group B
Manchester United
CSKA Moscow

United were all set to have a comfortable draw until they drew the German champions Wolfsburg from the fourth group of teams. Still, United will almost certainly go through. More likely to be affected are Russian runners-up CSKA Moscow and Turkish champions Besiktas, who have to deal with another side with a legitimate chance to go through. Indeed, Wolfsburg are possibly favorites for the second spot.

Group C
AC Milan
Real Madrid
FC Zurich

Real Madrid weirdly found themselves in the second pool of teams chosen after five years of Champions League mediocrity. But they didn't pay too heavy a price in drawing AC Milan, a very good side, but not as bad as drawing Chelsea or Man United. Still, the Milan-Madrid matchups will certainly be compelling, with Kaka returning to San Siro and Huntelaar returning to the Bernabeu. Not to be overlooked is Marseille, who will be dangerous and could claim a spot in the knockout round if Milan or Madrid slip up. To be overlooked is FC Zurich, because they are from the Swiss league.

Group D
FC Porto
Atletico Madrid

In a word, brutal. Chelsea, Porto and Atletico face elimination early, as only two can advance. The Portugese champions and surprise 2004 champions have advanced from the group stage the last three years. Atletico returns to the Champions League after advancing from the group stage last year and falling, ironically, to Porto. And Chelsea have obviously been a consistent force in recent Champions League history, and would have been champions two years ago if John Terry could convert on a penalty. The action in this group should be intense. The team everyone will be looking to claim six points from is Cypriot champions APOEL, the second year in a row a team from Cyprus has appeared in the Champions League.

Group E
Olympique Lyonnais

Liverpool also won't be sending any thank you notes to UEFA for the draw, earning Lyon, who are always a difficult out in Europe, and Fiorentina, who progressed through a difficult qualifier against Sporting Lisbon on away goals. Assuming Liverpool go through, the battle for second place will be intriguing. Hungarian champions Debreceni round out the group. Their stadium has a capacity of 9200 sitting and room for another 1000 to stand. Couldn't make that up. Thank you Wikipedia.

Group F
Inter Milan
Dynamo Kiev
Rubin Kazan

Perhaps the most mouth-watering fixtures come from Group F, where the Spanish champions and title holders face the Italian champions home and away. Obviously the Ibra-Eto'o swap between Barcelona and Inter only adds to the intrigue. While those two matchups will obviously capture most of the attention, the other two squads shouldn't be overlooked. Dynamo Kiev has Champions League pedigree, having made the semifinals three times. And Rubin Kazan finished champions of the very respectable Russian league, currently ranked sixth in the league UEFA rankings, just behind France. Not to mention the big clubs have to travel to Ukraine and Russia, respectively. Not fun. An intriguing group all the way around.

Group G
Unirea Urziceni

Sevilla's reward for being in Pot 1 for the draw is leading a very managable group. Scottish champion Rangers are the second side, which isn't exactly like drawing Inter or Real Madrid. Stuttgart is a quality side and will have a good chance to progress. Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni round out the group.

Group H
AZ Alkmaar
Standard Liege

Arsenal also fall into the "easy draw" category for this draw in Group H. Dutch champions AZ Alkmaar worked their way into Pot 2 for the draw because of their extensive Europa Cup experience over the past few years. The Greek and Belgian champions round out the group. Arsenal should go through quite easily, the question is who else will go through.

Fans Prove That Azteca Etiquette Crosses Borders

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that." -Bill Shankly

Bill Shankly, the famous Liverpool manager, said many memorable things, and the above quote may be his most oft cited adage. Many people wholeheartedly agree with that proposition and proudly live their life according to its message.

You'll notice that we here at FutbolNation have cited at the top Jorge Valdano, the Argentine nicknamed the "Philosopher of Football," who takes a slightly different perspective of the sport in relationship to our lives.

Fans of course, coming from the word fanatics, are called so for a reason. As many of you know, Tuesday was marred by fan violence at the West Ham-Millwall Carling Cup East London derby. Clashes led to at least one fan being stabbed in the chest and three pitch invasions that almost forced the match to be abandoned. West Ham in particular have a long and notorious reputation for hooliganism, as depicted in the movie Green Street Hooligans.

Clearly no one condones this type of behavior, and fans caught in such acts should be banned from stadiums. I have been involved in many a shouting match with opposing fans over the years at various sporting events, and I've used a lot of inappropriate language, but never has it occurred to me to actually respond physically and violently.

While in no way nearly as bad as the events in London, last night's DC United-Toluca match provided me with a more personal experience with classless fans, something that seems to be particularly prevalent among Mexican fans and other countries in Latin America.

These fans are notorious for the abuse they heap on American teams and fans in Latin America, which in addition to profane language includes throwing beers, bottles and cups, bags of urine, and other projectiles. Many people witnessed this on TV when Landon Donovan prepared to take corner kicks near the end of the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier in Mexico City.

Well, last night in RFK Stadium, Toluca fans brought that classy etiquette to Washington, DC. My friends and I, as well as the families next to us, including women and kids, were constantly showered with beer and a few objects were tossed our way, including a pair of shirts. Who throws a shirt? Honestly! You fight like a woman!

Additionally, the Mexican fans had no qualms yelling inappropriate and offensive phrases all game long. We began to wonder why is it that they have no problems doing so despite the fact that there are Hispanic children all around you who understand you! (I do want to add a note that the RFK security was a disgrace, focusing on getting us to sit down and move rather than throwing out the fans they witnessed throwing things; just giving them a warning is not good enough and throwing things shouldn't be tolerated.)

Of course I want to amend the previous statement about the yelling all game long. During the second half, which DC United dominated until Hector Mancilla scored a brilliant goal against the run of play in the 79th minute, the Toluca fans were conspicuously quieter. The DC United fans, on the other hand, never stopped standing and cheering and singing, even when Toluca was dominating possession and when they eventually pulled away at the end of the game. Furthermore, we chant for our team, rather than cursing the other team's fans. Just another reason why I believe many Mexican fans are simply a disgrace.

All this brings me back to the point that some people simply take fandom beyond what a reasonable human should. I fully admit to being more passionate and crazy about the teams I support than is often healthy. I use the pronoun 'we.' But I think there must be something wrong in someone's head that they must resort to throwing beer (hey that's $6.50 you just wasted) and projectiles or god forbid stabbing another fan because he has the audacity of being from another city or country and supporting another team. Certainly there are American fans who do such things, and though I've never seen American soccer fans act that way (the violence and throwing things, not the language), I have seen despicable behavior at other sporting events.

Am I wrong in my view here? Do you have stories of American soccer fans acting similarly? I think soccer fans' passion is what helps make the sport the greatest game on Earth, but sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder what's wrong with people.

Thursday Morning's Quick News

Arjen Robben will move to Bayern Munich for 25 million euros. Apparently Real Madrid's need to sell overuled Pellegrini's desire to keep the Dutchman. Supposedly this move also facilitates Ribery's arrival to the Bernabeu next summer.

And not wanting to miss a chance, Ribery says that Zidane would be "very happy" if he moved to Madrid.

The Wesley Sneijder era at Madrid appears to have come to an end, with the Dutchman agreeing to a 15 million euro transfer to Inter. He's not happy about it, and meanwhile Van der Vaart remains at the club while the two top Dutchmen depart. Madness.

The Scottish Football Association have called for Arsenal's Eduardo to be banned for diving against Celtic in their Champions League qualifier.

Senna returns to the Spanish national team, as may Cesc Fabregas - calling into question the gameday status of both this weekend. Especially the gunner, whose team faces United at Old Trafford.

And Chygrynskiy finally arrives to the Camp Nou for a paltry 25 million euros. He's the second most expensive defender in Barca history, after Dani Alves.

Also, today we'll discover the Champions League groups - always an exciting proposition.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Altidore's First Goal for Hull

Jozy Altidore is making an early mark on Hull City's season, debuting with a game-winning assist on his first touch and scoring the game winner in his second game against Southend in the Carling Cup. He's earning high praise from manager Phil Brown, who's looking for big things from the American striker. Check out his goal:

Serie A Breaking Away, Emulating the Premier League

In rather important news regarding Italian football, Serie A club presidents ratified the split of the Serie A from Serie B. The move is intended to emulate the creation of the Premier League and bring the Italian league back onto par with the EPL and La Liga.

As I noted in my preview/state of the league on the Serie A, Italian football suffers from individual TV contracts that benefit the big teams (Milan, Juve, Inter) and the league also distributes funds to their Serie B counterparts. In England, the old First Division broke away from the English Football League to become the Premier League, while the First Division (now known as the Football League Championship) remained but became what was previously the second division. The Premier League also negotiated collective television rights and corporate sponsors, infusing massive amounts of money to its clubs.

The Serie A will begin its breakaway league in 2010/11 and will no longer pay Serie B clubs. Although collective TV rights have not been negotiated yet, it can only be a matter of time before that happens. It will be interesting to see how that process plays out.

This news is particularly big and will have a very immediate effect on league play this season because relegation and survival have suddenly become much much more important. Serie B teams will also have that much more of an incentive to claim one of the promotion spots. There has been a long and sordid history in Italy regarding shady deals and payoffs at the end of the season when teams are fighting for relegation, survival, and promotion. You would think that the clubs involved this year will be watched closely to ensure a fair end to the season.

This was one of my keys to spurring a revival in the Serie A, and it is certainly a major step forward. Next will be negotiating the the collective TV deal, and finally improving the stadium situations (ownership, atmosphere, violence). I doubt this changes anything dramatically in the near future, particularly because rectifying the issue with stadiums will take a long time, but it certainly is a positive step for fans of Italian football.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday's Quick Notes

Lyon and Atletico Madrid locked their spots in this year's Champions League, as did Debreceni VSC, Maccabi Haifa, and FC Zurich. Lyon continue their representation of France in the Champions League, and Aguero and Forlan's goals return for a second consecutive year. Maccabi were Israel's first group-stage representatives in the 2002-03 season, and now return for their second time. Meanwhil Debrecen make their first trip into the group stage, and are Hungary's first representative since 1995-96.

Sneijder throws a wrench in Real Madrid's efforts to move him to Inter...or anywhere...again. It looks like he wants to stay, and is going to do so. The Dutchman is willing to compete for a spot at bench-heavy Real.

Ukranian international and Shakhtar Donetsk central defender Dnytro Chygrynskiy may finally arrive in Barcelona. Pep loves the guy. No one else knows a thing about him.

West Ham's 3-1 Carling Cup win over rival Millwall was overshadowed by the disgraceful events in and around the stadium.

If Sevilla's signing of Alvaro Negredo weren't enough proof of his quality, then his 80 million euro buyout clause certainly is. As for Sevilla itself, the fact that Negredo, at 14 million euros is their most expensive signing, speaks volumes about how well that organization is run. Numerous top four finishes, two consecutive Europa Cups, a King's Cup, and several Champions League appearances in recent years with no signings over 14 million euros? Impressive to say the least.

Today Michel Platini met with several club presidents, including Barcelona's Laporta, Lyon's Aulas, Bayern's Rummenigge, and other club brass (Milan's Gandini and Inter's Paolillo) in Geneva to discuss the implementation of a salary cap and transfer fee cap in club football. The E.U. president agrees, and Platini hopes to have the statute drafted within a month. I suppose Laporta forgot what he just paid for Ibrahimovic, and what he pays Messi, Ibra and Henry. I guess Aulas forgot the transfer checks Lyon's been cashing for years now, and it's not as if the other clubs on that list have always bought cheap. And Platini, well I'm sure the transfer fees for him were extremely reasonable.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Double Dose of Tragedy Hits West Ham

Perhaps I'm imagining things, but rather than "silly" as the transfer season is so prone to being called, this summer has been rather sullen at times. Now, just weeks after the death of 26 year old Espanyol captain Dani Jarque comes news of two tragic events affecting West Ham in less than 24 hours.

Reports this morning revealed that West Ham defender Calum Davenport (26) and his mother (49) fell victim to a stabbing attack in their driveway early Saturday morning. It appears the culprit was the lover of Davenport's sister. Davenport is in stable condition but may lose a leg from his injuries.

Meanwhile, Ian Collison (46) was on his way to see his 20-year old son, and West Ham midfielder, Jack Collison play agaisnt Spurs when he crashed his motorcycle Sunday morning. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Our thoughts here at FutbolNation are with both the Davenport and Collison familes, as well as the West Ham footballing family as they all suffer through these sad events.

Villa Upset Rounds Out Weekend

It looked as though it might be a ho-hum weekend in the EPL this weekend, with most of the favorites (United, City, Arsenal, Chelsea) having won comfortably. But the storyline was re-written this afternoon with Aston Villa's stunning 3-1 victory at Anfield. Indeed, the hosts were so befuddled they seemed to quit in the last ten minutes, managing only an odd chance here or there and finding no real urgency.

Villa came into the match in terrible form. They opened the campaign with a loss to Wigan and lost away to Rapid Vienna in midweek in the Europa League. For the first ten minutes, a repeat of last year's 5-0 thrashing at Anfield seemed a good bet. In the ninth minute, both Gerrard and Torres failed to convert on golden chances. But that was the last of Liverpool's momentum for the half, as the pace of the match slowed to a crawl, and Liverpool seemed content to possess without mounting real pressure. Villa caught their break on a free kick Lucas headed past Reina into his own net. Villa responded with superior play, and Liverpool responded by complaining to the referee. Into extra time in the first half, Villa were awarded a corner on a shot that did appear to be deflected. Reina kicked the ball away angrily and was booked, but worse yet for the Reds, they failed to properly defend the corner and Curtis Davies' glancing header made it 2-0 going to halftime. Though Carragher and Torres were both near Davies, neither tracked the opposing man on his crisp run toward the front post. The ESPN commentators at halftime are correct: zone marking often is really no marking at all.

The Kop found its voice for the beginning of the second half, and the pressure on the Villa defense continued to mount. The breakthrough finally came when Benayoun found Insua breaking into the box, who found Torres for the volley tap-in. But Liverpool's momentum didn't last long. Nicky Shorey's pass broke down the Liverpool defense and played Nigel Reo-Coker into a dangerous position, and Gerrard panicked and brought him down in the area. Since the ball would have been claimed by the defender anyway, it was a particularly poor decision for the captain. Ashley Young's penalty ended any remaining drama.

One never knows if one match will turn a season, but Villa certainly hope so. Martin O'Neill's side seemed destined for mid-table (at least) if they continued their current form throughout the season. Perhaps this will be the spark that get Villa going. The backline was superb today, doing the hard work of cutting off crosses and making timely tackles. Something to build on going into next week (and the home Europa leg). For Liverpool, today was a disaster. The Reds have now equalled their two defeats from all of last year. Unlike the previous away defeat, today's loss to a struggling side at home is not acceptable for a team that aspires to win the Premier League. There's a long way to go, but a few more results like this one and Liverpool's title dreams may die early.

Elsewhere this weekend, United did put on a show in the second half against Wigan, as ARF mentioned. It was a breakthrough for Man U, which spent the first half doing what they'd done the first two matches: failing to convert on chance after chance. Such lack of precision won't be enough against Arsenal, who come to Old Trafford in the premier contest of next weekend. Arsenal rolled on with another four goals against Portsmouth, now compiling ten in their first two matches. Getting a true read on the strength of the young Gunners will be easier after next week. Meanwhile Andrei Arshavin tried to dampen in feel-good early season vibes in North London, saying that Arsenal need to make further signings in order to compete. Arshavin is likely correct of course, but a) no sense saying it publicly and throwing the rest of the team under the bus; b) Wenger's likely not going to spend any more money no matter what Arshavin says.

Manchester City continue to convert just enough chances, winning at home 1-0 against Wolves. They will drop needless points if they don't put more balls in the back of the net. At least Lescott is finally on his way. Looking more impressive is Chelsea, who were throughly convincing in 2-0 victory at Fulham. This writer still has Chelsea as the early league favorites, thanks in no small part to a willingness to play Anelka and Drogba at the same time. Likewise, Tottenham won an important match 2-1 at West Ham. Could Tottenham threaten not only for a European spot, but for the top four as well? Their current form would certainly make them dangerous for fourth place, but it's a long season. And I should mention Burnley defeating Everton, which leaves Burnley with six points and Everton with zero (and a -6 goal difference, which leaves them bottom of the table). Anyone who predicted those point totals should head for Vegas straightaway.

Finally, a word about the arrival of the EPL (and la Liga, when it begins) on ESPN. It was impressive to turn on ESPN2 Saturday morning and find the Wigan-Manchester United match, shot beautifully in HD (and the same with Liverpool-Villa today). When I was watching the ESPN EPL opening, with faces from around the world glued to the television watching the Premier League, I couldn't help but think of HalaMadrid's post on the importance of league marketing. But having ESPN show the EPL and la Liga both increases potential viewership and represents the continual growth in popularity of football in the United States. When a match is on FSC, only those who seek it out will watch it, because FSC is not widely carried the way ESPN is. I remember trying to find somewhere to watch a Manchester United-Liverpool match in Lansing, Michigan, and calling a couple of bars listed as "soccer bars" on a website. None of the bars were opening until 11 am (after the match had begun), and when I asked specifically if they were carrying the game, no one had any idea what I was talking about. For people that don't live in big cities, having ESPN coverage makes EPL and la Liga matches so much more accessible. It also means they will get shown at airport bars, TGI Friday's, and other places where it's possible soccer has never regularly been shown before. Of course the only reason ESPN is expanding their coverage is because of the constant growth over the last decade. More of you out there are like us here at FutbolNation: you love the game, and you want to see more of it. I expect football coverage in the United States to increase further as the game's popularity continues to ascend.

News from Around FutbolNation

Before commenting on some of the weekend's action, some other news percolating around today:

Everton and Manchester City have agreed on a £22m transfer for defender Joleon Lescott, subject to his agreeing to terms with City and passing a medical. City has started strong with a pair of shutout victories, and this move only bolsters their ambition to finish not just into a Champions League spot or better. Additionally, Man City brought in ex-Barca vet Sylvinho to back up Wayne Bridge. Carlos Tevez, for his part, thinks that Sir Alex and Man U are scared of new look Man City.

The biggest surprise of the early EPL season is Burnley, who followed up their upset of Man U with a victory over Everton. Everton on the other hand have looked poor in losing their opening two matches, and it could be a long season for the Toffees. They will hope that the Lescott transfer removes a large distraction that will allow them to move forward, but their squad remains thin and unable to cope with key injuries, as evident by their current play in missing Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta.

Arsenal and Tottenham continued very strong starts, and one has to hope that the two can sustain their excellent play and make for an exciting race at the top third of the table. Not to be outdone, Man U responded from their loss to Burnley by putting five past Wigan. Wayne Rooney and Nani in particular looked devastating in the second half, including a beautiful through ball from Nani that set up a delightful finish that opened up Michael Owen's Man U account. You can see the goal below.

The Serie A kicked off with AC Milan and Juventus winning. Diego looked very good for Juventus and I am hopeful for a resurgent season that will see Inter's domestic hegemony come to an end. For their part Inter were held by Bari. And proving there is still some thrilling football left in Italy despite my bleak assessment of the league, Genoa beat Roma 3-2 and Udinese tied Parma 2-2 in two matches highlighting teams that are vital to the healthy balance of the league.

The Bundesliga saw some nice goalscoring action, with Werder Bremen, Hamburger, and Bayer Leverkusen scoring 3, 4 and 5 goals in their respective victories. Bayern Munich lost 2-1, the lone goal being a consolation own goal in the 90th minute. Starting 0-2-1, how long is it before crisis mode hits Bavaria and we hear renewed rumours about Franck Ribery's discontent?

Over in MLS, the amazing happened: the Red Bulls won their third match of the season! I was really hoping for an unprecedented run of futility. Not that beating Dallas is anything special. New York was led to victory by interim manager Richie Williams, who took over for Juan Carlos Osorio, who resigned after being told he was being fired at the end of the season anyway. Ives Galarcep covers how the mismanagement by the Red Bull owners, combined with poor decision making by Osorio and technical director Jeff Agoos, have led the historical bad club to new depths.

This led me to think about the different expectations for MLS coaches than coaches in other leagues around the world, and even in different US sports. In two seasons Osorio was 12-27-13 and he was just 2-16-4 this season. Certainly that record and the on-the-field product would have resulted in a firing much earlier had this been in the EPL or Serie A. Can you imagine any team in England going 13 games without a win and not getting rid of their manager? Juventus fired its coach with two games remaining last season because they were in danger of finishing in third rather than second!

Closer to home for me, DC United continue to show little life this season under Tom Soehn. Under his guidance, DC has finished first in the regular season but flamed out spectactularly in the playoffs, missed the playoffs for the first time in 6 seasons, and are in danger of missing the playoffs again. For the most successful and decorated club in MLS, it's surprising that there isn't more pressure on Soehn. If this were the Redskins or Capitals (Nationals don't count, they have gone through such miserable stretches and it's to be expected) you can bet that the coach would be on the hot seat pending the final results of the season. Certainly there is less pressure in MLS due to the greater inclusiveness of the playoffs, less overall establishment within the community, the recognition that working with a small salary cap limits each team's resources, and general league parity that prevents too many teams from being either too good or too awful. But at the same time, winning is that much more important in MLS because many teams cannot draw viable crowds based on die hard supporters alone and will need successful teams to draw in more fans. Even DC, with the best fan base in MLS prior to recent expansion teams Seattle and Toronto and the fervent crowds at their home fields, is suffering and the dip in play is in many ways responsible for the continued depletion of crowds at RFK. It's sad to show up to games and look around and I see smaller crowds than in the past. I'm not necessarily calling for Soehn to be fired, but his situation and that of Osorio made me wonder about the different expectations in MLS and whether that plays a role in the overall quality of play in the league.

So as not to end on that sour note, check out these highlights from Hull City v. Bolton, including Jozy Altidore's fantastic EPL debut, setting up the game winning goal with his first touches.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday's News and Notes

Not Hull City. Not Zaragoza. Real Madrid product Alvaro Negredo will be moving to Andalusia this season, and perhaps for the next four as Sevilla snapped up the burgeoning striker for 14 million euros. Real Madrid will be happy to make a deposit instead of a withdrawal, and to let Negredo continue cutting his teeth in both Spain in Europe. They probably won't be happy when he scores against them. Real have a buyback option after the first two seasons for 17 million euros.

One thing is sure regarding Wesley Sneijder - no one knows what the hell is going on. The player seems to want to stay, but Real Madrid's treatment of him in the preseason has been schizophrenic to say the least. They want him, they don't, they do. Now Real and Inter have agreed on terms, but the ever-important approval of the player is missing.

Pep Guardiola is not happy with the club's signing efforts. Nonetheless, Barca will make one last effort for Shakhtar Donetsk central defender Chygrynskiy. Their efforts could be aided by Shakhtar's failure in the Europe League qualifiers. The Catalan giants are also looking at Schalke's Rafinha to reinforce their back line.

Nicolas Burdisso appears primed to make the move from Inter to Roma in the coming days.

The Catalan sports dailies claim Real Madrid are very worried with Cristiano Ronaldo's "disappointing" preseason. Apparently both Pellegrini and CR7 are having trouble finding him a spot, and the pressure of the Madrid tabloid press and expectations at the Bernabeu are weighing on the star. Don't worry too much cules - he'll be just right come the gran clasico in November.

Is the Joleon Lescott transfer saga really over? Somehow, I doubt it. I'm targeting a August 30th transfer.

Lampard claims that the only player that can replace Ronaldo at United is the relatively unknown Lionel Messi. In other good news for United, Rio Ferdinand is out for up to a month. Bzimzim breaks down some of the issues facing United, particularly their schedule, here.

Fantastic in-depth write-up on the state of the Serie A by ARF right here on FutbolNation. Paolo Bandini tries to find the silver-lining in his Guardian piece on the Serie A, but frankly, I think ARF's take on the state of football in Italy is more realistic and accurate.

Check out this fantastic article (and accompanying video) by Barney Ronay on the history of the football manager which also kicks off a six-part short video series on the same topic. The second video in the series is here.

And I'll just touch on the fact that three unexpected teams will be looking for away-leg comebacks in the Europa League. Aston Villa and Zenit St. Petersburg lost, and Roma drew in the playoff round. Notably, the other bigger teams in the playoff destroyed their opposition in a goal-filled first leg. Full results here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Quick! Look to Your Right!

Ten years ago it was easy to know where you had to go to watch football on TV in the U.S. - you didn't, because it wasn't on.

Seriously though, even as recently as last year it was rather easy to figure what was going on where. GolTV had the la Liga and the Bundesliga. FSC and Setanta split the EPL. FSC had the Serie A. ESPN had the Champions League. Apart from some one-offs, you just needed to know what time the game was being played and you were set.

Now... not so much. ESPN is splitting la Liga and EPL rights with GolTV and Setanta. FSC still has the Serie A. GolTV still has the Bundesliga, mostly. Fox as a network has the Champions League and promises to run every game live - that means some of your games might show up on FX or other random networks.

And make no mistake, this is a good, even great, thing. There should be more football on TV this coming year than ever before, and it should be on a bigger stage with more visibility. But it may be hard to track down what's on where. So FutbolNation has committed itself to a sidebar "What to Watch and Where" post that will go up Thursdays or Fridays (weekend games) and Mondays (midweek fixtures). We'll limit ourselves to the four major European leagues (Liga, EPL, Serie A, Bundesliga), the Champions League, and perhaps some exceptional Europa Cup, Copa Libertadores, or Copa Sudamericana games. Another parameter is that only live or same-day-delay games will be posted. Equally, we're limiting the list to channels widely available.

Obviously, we'll take care to include special events like the Club World Cup and Super Cups. During FIFA dates we'll do our best to guide you to the major national team games. Hopefully this helps, and we'll all be watching a bit more footie this year!

Burnley Stuns United

Burnley couldn't have asked for more from their first win in the top flight in thirty-three years, stunning Manchester United 1-0 behind Robbie Blake's blistering strike. Burnley somehow managed to make that lone goal hold up, with goalkeeper Brian Jensen playing the hero for saving the penalty oddly taken by Michael Carrick. The Clarets certainly announced their return to the Premier League with style. Meanwhile, United have to be concerned, having only scored one goal in 180 minutes and turning in two fairly listless performances. The schedule does not allow the Red Devils time to ease into the season; their next four fixtures are away to a Wigan team that won at Villa, home for Arsenal, away to Spurs, and home for Manchester City. Arsenal and Tottenham look particularly sharp at the moment, and the City fixture will be fascinating. United need to find another gear fast.

Liverpool took out their disappointment from the opener on Stoke, winning 4-0 at Anfield. Torres opened the scoring four minutes in and the Reds were in control throughout. If Glen Johnson continues in his current form, he'll quickly shed the "overpriced" tag that accompanied his move from Portsmouth. Johnson scored the second goal and had a hand (or boot) in the third and fourth. Despite the three points, Liverpool still have defensive concerns with Skrtel out two weeks, and were forced to start 18-year-old Daniel Ayala. In order to solidify the back line, Benitez acquired center back Sotiris Kyrgiakos from AEK Athens. Benitez also had to rebut sudden rumors he was quitting, saying he is "100% commited to the club."

Tottenham also won Wednesday, throttling Hull City 5-1 on the road. Hull will finish somewhere in the bottom half of the table, but were playing at home and gave Chelsea all they could handle over the weekend. But Spurs dispensed of the Tigers easily, with Jermain Defoe finishing a hat trick in the 90th minute. Their reward is the opportunity to sit atop the early season table. Only 36 matches left.

Looking ahead to this weekend, United need a result and improved play at Wigan. Spurs travel to West Ham in a match of two sides looking to move up the table this year. Fulham host Chelsea at Craven Cottage Sunday, while Villa visits Anfield on Monday.

Wither the Serie A?

Beginning its 80th season this weekend, the Serie A returns to action, with many questions pertaining to its decline and relevancy. If you want a team-by-team preview, Roberto Gotta covers Atalanta-Juve here and Lazio-Udinese here.

There was once a time when the Serie A could claim to be the best league in the world. While it is still considered one of the big four leagues with La Liga, Premier League, and Bundesliga, it would be hard to argue that the Lega Calcio has not fallen behind La Liga and the EPL.

Could there be a silver lining or a ray of sunshine on the horizon? Italian supporters only need look to their history for a model of hope.

The Serie had its first big match fixing scandal in 1980, the Totonero. This resulted in Milan and Lazio being relegated, as well as five teams being penalized points the following season. Caught up in the scandal was Paolo Rossi, the star striker who broke out for the Azzurri at the 1978 World Cup.

Yet, in the midst of reeling from scandal, in 1982 Italy won its first World Cup title since 1938, led by Rossi and goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff. Building on this victory, the Serie A entered its heyday of the 80s and early 90s, which saw many of the world's top footballers playing in Italy while the Azzurri also challenging regularly for world championships in the international stage.

The early golden period was led by Juventus, as the Old Lady dominated the Serie A in the late 70s and early 80s, culminating with the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup championships in 1984 and the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup triumphs in 1985. These teams were lead by three-time European Footballer of the Year Michel Platini, along with Rossi. Unfortunately the 1985 European Cup was also the Heysel Stadium disaster. That tragedy resulted in English teams being banned from European competition, in many ways aiding the Serie A's ascendancy in European football.

The late 80s saw the rise of Napoli, led by the great Maradona, and the Milan teams. Milan famously built its two all-conquering Dream Teams, the 1989 European Champions with Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni, Ruud Gullit, and Marco van Basten. The 1994 version had one of the most famous European Cup championship victories in the competition's history, crushing Barcelona 4-0. Future world players of the year continued to be found in the Serie A, with Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Baggio also helped lead Italy to the 1994 World Cup final. During the same period, Italian teams dominated the UEFA Cup, with Juve, Inter, Fiorentina, Napoli, Parma, Torino, and Roma all playing at least one final from 1989 to 1995.

However, it was in the late 1990s that things began to slip in the Serie A, even if observers didn't immediately notice it.

By this time, Juventus was once again a European power on the back of the incomparable Zinedine Zidane. However, stadium infrastructure and TV contracts, both in Italy and in England, were beginning to take their toll. Most stadiums in Italy are owned by local city councils, and the clubs pay a percentage of their gate profits for their use. Many stadiums were built for the 1990 World Cup and they lacked the atmosphere and amenities of new, modernized, or renovated stadiums that came during the mid- to late-90s. Many were built with tracks separating the stands from the field, further reducing atmosphere and visibility. The Stadio delle Alpi in Turin is a prime example.

TV contracts were the second major factor reducing competitiveness. Deregulation led to cheap pay-TV, and clubs were able to strike their own deals. Obviously this led to the big clubs like Juve, Inter and Milan, and to a lesser degree Napoli, Lazio, Roma, and Fiorentina, signing contracts worth more than the smaller clubs. Ultimately the Serie became a two league team, with Juve and Milan dominating and Roma and Inter occasionally challenging. The supposed high water mark for the Serie A was the 2003 Champions League final, pitting Milan against Juventus, one of the worst finals ever. Many claimed this was the peak of the Serie A, but all the final did was serve to hide the ultimate collapse that was to come.

In addition to aging stadia, poor stadium and TV contracts, and an extremely top-heavy imbalance in quality, the Serie A's demise was aided by three other important factors: the rise of the Premier League, scandal, and hooliganism.

As just noted, the Serie A's TV contracts put smaller clubs in a severe disadvantage. On the other hand, the Premier League introduced collective and exclusive TV rights, as well as league corporate sponsorship. The dramatic increase in revenue for all teams in the Premier League substantially improved each team's relative ability to improve itself and attract top foreign talent, finally able to compete with the likes of Milan, Juve, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. Add in the influx of rich foreign ownership, and you get Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Liverpool dominating Europe along with Spanish teams during this decade.

Of course, corruption was the final stake in the heart of Serie A prominence. The Calciopoli scandal led to Juventus being relegated and Milan, Lazio, Reggina, and Fiorentina penalized (and I will maintain that after everything, the fact that Milan was not as severely punished as Juve and Inter was not punished at all was the result of corruption itself - Inter was heavily involved in illegal phone tapping and referees testified to Inter's involvement in tampering back to 2002).

The scandal clearly weakened Serie A competitively and certainly left a black eye on its reputation. Afterwards, only one team was left untouched that could be a true representative in Europe, namely Inter. However, Inter was never good enough to grab hold of the imagination, even after raiding Juventus for player reinforcements. Additionally, Roma, who was the next biggest beneficiary of the scandal, failed to take advantage of its new position as the number two team in Italy. With the severe penalties temporarily crippling Milan and Juventus, both teams are still in the midst of rebuilding their teams. Juve is ahead of Milan in this respect.

The final and currently ongoing source of decline in the Serie A is hooliganism, including racism. Much has been made of the right-wing ultras at many teams, especially those at Lazio that have been linked with fascism. Repeated violence in January 2007 threatened to halt the Serie A entirely, and as recently as this February Roma hooligans stabbed four Liverpool fans. In April, Juve fans racially abused Italian-born Mario Balotelli and were forced to play a game behind closed doors, not the first time such a penalty has been forced on an Italian team in recent times.

As for the actual talent on the field, this summer was notable in Italy for the star players leaving rather than joining Serie A clubs, with Kaka joining Real Madrid from Milan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining Barcelona from Inter in a swap for Samuel Eto'o.

So, after all that history and an examination of the current problems plaguing the Serie A, where does that leave us? In the wake of a scandal, Italy won the 2006 World Cup, so can the Serie A replicate its post-1982 rise to prominence?

Juventus and Milan are slowly trying to rise again and both appear entrenched in European competition along with Inter and Roma. Juve made the biggest moves, adding Diego and Felipe Melo to play with young Italians like Giovinco, Chiellini, and Marchisio, and it looks like they could be the team ready to step up and challenge Inter at home and possibly the big boys in Europe. Unfortunately, despite having budding star Alexandre Pato, Milan has been in disarray following Kaka's departure and many of their key players are aging. Milan must be hopeful that Ronaldinho can some how rekindle his former magic (remember how amazing it was to watch him in action at the top of his game for Barca?).

Still, I can't really see the a new renaissance coming right now. Like it or not, big clubs largely influence how a league is perceived. Milan is in transition and Inter simply has never been the type of team with a world following that can bring attention to the Serie A the way Milan and Juve can, or Man U, Liverpool, Barca, Real Madrid, and even Bayern Munich do for their leagues. Even though Inter smartly added Eto'o this summer, who is the first person you think of when you think of Inter? Jose Mourinho, their coach, not any player.

Of course the real test of a league's strength is the second tier of teams. England tries to claim superiority because it can trot out the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham, the new Man City, and Everton. Spain has strong claims due to its deep roster of quality sides that have over the years challenged in Europe, such as Valencia, Villareal, Deportivo, and Sevilla.

But what of the second tier Serie A teams? Fiorentina and Roma will continue to try to play attacking football, and Roma on their day can still produce beautiful displays. But Roma's problem is its huge debt, preventing them from building depth that could push a very strong first 11 to the level of true challenger to Inter and in Europe. Udinese provides the occasional sublime football and had a roster full of up and coming Italians, but losing its fulcrum D'Agostino to Liverpool will be a big blow. Palermo and Genoa also raised the level of play in Serie A last year, but both look poised to be feeder clubs as teams like Inter pick off their best performers. Genoa alone lost Diego Milito and Thiago Motta to Inter. An entertaining and competitive middle third of the Serie A consisting of teams like Udinese, Palermo, Genoa, Sampdoria, and Napoli is vital to the Serie A's health, but these teams have either underperformed in Europe or they get virtually no exposure on TV (at least in the US). And when the games are shown in the US, poor broadcast production and poor atmosphere (or in some cases the broadcast fails to adequately convey the atmosphere) often make the games unwatchable.

Ultimately the only way the Serie A will rise again is by having Milan and Juve reach their former levels, but not at the expense of teams like Inter or Roma, while modernizing competitiveness at the gate and on the airwaves. In positive news, Juve's new stadium is still on schedule for completion in time for the 2011 season despite the economic collapse that has deranged many a development project. With a new stadium and new team, Juventus could be regaining its old luster, and doing so may prove a stimulus that forces other teams to do what's necessary to remain competitive. MLS actually provides a good model for the Serie A. In MLS the main goal of the league has been to get every team eventually into small, soccer-specific and atmospheric stadiums. I understand it's asking a lot to redo both the television and stadium infrastructure of the league, but if the Serie A doesn't do something soon, it will fall further and further behind. As it is, Italy has geographic and other advantages to England (e.g., women and food), so if new stadiums produce new atmospheres and safer crowds, then coming to Italy suddenly becomes much more appealing.

Thank you for bearing with this long post, but as someone with an interest in Juventus and in competitive, beautiful soccer generally, it's sad to see a storied league fall so hard and I can only hope things turn around.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wednesday Rebounds

So yesterday in my Toe Pokes I apparently jinxed Sunderland by noting they were at the time leading Chelsea, but needed to do better than the 8 goals allowed against the Blues in the 2008-09 season if they were to hold on. Of course the Black Cats capitulated and allowed three goals for 3-1 loss. If there's a bright spot for Sunderland, it's that Darren Bent, who I think is extremely overrated, is starting strong with goals in their opening two games.

Here are highlights before they get snatched from YouTube.

On the other hand, Wolverhampton Wanderers ended up holding on to their 1-0 lead to get their first win of the season against Wigan.

DC United suffered another setback, losing 3-1 to Marathon in San Pedro Sula. DC United was actually the better team on the night, dominating probably 70% of the game. Unfortunately for DC, the other 30% involved Greg Janicki. I noted before that this season he's shown why he was just a USL-2 player prior to his loan to DC. Well let's just say that Janicki is an unmitigated debacle in the back. I'm pretty sure that he couldn't play for either of my men's teams, one of which has players who had never played soccer before. I won't post highlights because it's not even worth watching Janicki being specifically, 100% responsible for all three goals.

On the more humorous side, if you watched the game, you were treated to the San Pedro Sula p.a. and the Fox Soccer Channel broadcast team. As Washington Post reporter Steven Goff put it, it sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher found a new job. I think they just outsourced the job to the DC Metro. As for Christian Miles and the FSC boys, well, they simply need to do better as professionals. I kept thinking during the game about how awful and plain wrong they constantly were, and you should never get caught up in the broadcasters when watching the game. At times it's humorous to listen to someone so bad, but I guess there's not much that can be done. Oh well.

Today brings some more action, including CONCACAF and UEFA Champions Leagues. In CONCACAF, Houston takes on Metapan of El Salvador. In UEFA the games of note are Lyon against Anderecht and Panathinaikos against Atletico Madrid. Read up on HalaMadrid's informative take on the new Champions League qualifying rules.

MLS and EPL also have some games to play today. Chicago facing a David Beckham-less LA Galaxy thanks to his red card over the weekend. LA has the potential to have a very strong offense, with a young and promising defense that still leaks goals, but they're still positioned well to make the postseason, while Chicago is strong but uninspiring, as always.

In England, Liverpool needs to pick up three points at Stoke or else their EPL championship bid will end before it really begins. Tottenham has a great chance of getting out to a solid early start with a second win against shorthanded Hull City. Portsmouth and Birmingham face off in what many would predict is going to be an important relegation match when all is said and done. Man U also faces newly promoted Burnley (as of this writing Burnley is leading 1-0, will they suffer the same fate as Sunderland after I wrote about their lead yesterday?).

And finally, after the off season drama and the horrible showing against Arsenal, David Moyes has shaken things up by dropping Joleon Lescott for a poor attitude. Could this be a prelude to an exit to Manchester??

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Of the Champions League and Mediocrity

It's become a yearly event that during the Champions League a retired player will make a statement to the press about how easy the Champions League has become since it stopped being a true "champions" league. That is to say, previously only domestic champions participated, while now the three major leagues send their top four teams through, Germany sends their top three teams, and the remainder of the competition is made up of domestic champions and runners-up (all at varying stages of three qualifying rounds). Usually the voice of such criticism is a curmedgeon like Di Stefano, or a bitter retiree like Platini.

Truth be told, the only competition a true "champions" league would help is the "Europa Cup." When Real Madrid won back-to-back "UEFA Cups" it was an achievement because at that time it was literally every second place and third place team competing. Now that competition is the province of more middling teams, so that when Sevilla won back-to-back UEFA Cups, while still an achievement, it was significantly less of a feat than when Real did it previously.

And yet an honest appraisal of today's club football inevitably leads to the conclusion that the third or fourth place English, Spanish, Italian, or German teams are better, and compete at a higher level, than the the Romanian, Norwegian, or Polish champions. Further, those third and fourth place teams are internationally recognized because most have accomplished something in their tough domestic leagues and generally have two or three genuinely world class players (Sevilla, Villareal, Atletico, Arsenal, Chelsea, Roma, Fiorentina, Stuttgart etc.). Thus, these are the teams that should be competing in the Champions League, and probably at the expense of "champions" from inferior leagues.

Sadly, Platini runs UEFA, and made a few changes to the Champions League format last year that we are now witnessing the results of. I won't delve into the precise changes of the qualifying phase format, but the critical text of UEFA's press release describes the changes as:

• Champions Path: The first qualifying round comprises two two-legged ties involving the champions of the countries ranked 50 to 53 in UEFA competition. The winners of those ties progress to the second qualifying round where they are joined by the champions of the 32 countries ranked 17 to 49 (except Liechtenstein). The victorious sides from those 17 ties join the champions from the associations ranked 14 to 16 in the third qualifying round, with the winners of those ten pairings reaching the play-off round. These five play-off ties will take place on a home-and-away basis with the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

• Non-Champions Path: The third-placed side from the sixth-ranked member association, plus the runners-up from the associations ranked 7 to 15, start the competition in the third qualifying round. The winners of these five ties progress to the play-off round, where they are joined by the fourth-placed sides from the associations ranked 1 to 3 and the third-placed teams from the associations ranked 4 and 5. The victorious teams from the five play-off ties qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

• Teams from the Champions Path and the Non-Champions Path cannot meet in UEFA Champions League qualifying.

Don't bother thinking about that too much. The crux of the matter is this - the Champions Path and the Non-Champions Path never meet in qualifying, and group together two distinct subsets of teams. The Champions Path, as described above, pairs together the champions from several leagues, puts them through between one and three qualifying rounds, and dumps them into the fourth and final qualifying "playoff" round - a round where by virtue of their "Champions" status, they are protected from the third and fourth place teams from the elite leagues. Meanwhile, "Non-Champion" teams start in the fourth "playoff" round, and play against each other. The idea, Platini would argue, is that we're going to see more true champions in the Champions League. Conceptually it's an interesting proposal. But look at how that plays out in qualifying match-ups:

Champions Path

Sheriff Tiraspol v. Olympiacos

Red Bull Salzburg v. Maccabi Haifa

Ventspils v. Zürich

Copenhagen v. APOEL

Levski Sofia v. Debrecen

Non-Champions Path

Lyon v. Anderlecht

Celtic v. Arsenal

Timişoara v. Stuttgart

Sporting CP v. Fiorentina

Panathinaikos v. Atlético Madrid

I don't know about anyone else, but the Champions Path teams appear primed for Cinderella status in this year's Champions League. And last I checked, they didn't need to change the format to allow Cinderellas in. Just last year CFR Cluj, Anorthosis, Basel, Aalborg BK, and BATE participated in the group round. Meanwhile, the Non-Champions Path pits teams against each other that most observers would agree are simply superior teams despite not being league champions. Lyon, Arsenal, Celtic, Atletico, Stuttgart, Fiorentina, and Sporting are all quality sides, and some will be advancing at the expense of others.

Arguably mediocre teams are simply being replaced by other mediocre teams. Despite their greater name recognition are Fiorentina or Sporting really going to make much more noise in the group stage than Maccabi or Copenhagen? Maybe, maybe not. But when one group in a preliminary qualifying round has nine teams out of 10 that you recognize from Champions Leagues of the last three years, and one has Olympiacos, something's up. Previously when a team like Copenhagen or Maccabi have been in Champions Leagues (and they have), it was because after two or three rounds of qualifying they beat Spain or England's fourth place team. Now the smaller teams are getting an easier road, and no one feels sorry for the big clubs because, hey, they're big clubs.

But the big loser in this scheme is the competition itself. No one wants the minnows out of the tournament. But the key to any four team group is getting that third team in that can shake things up. If the third team ends up being rolled over in the Chelsea, Sevilla, APOEL, and Anderlecht group what have you accomplished? You've killed any drama in the group, and increased the likelihood that Chelsea and Sevilla go through to knockouts. So the competition loses, and there's less parity. Now put Stuttgart or Lyon in with Chelsea and Sevilla. How are those group games looking?

But UEFA and Platini wanted "real" Champions. Even if it's at the expense of better teams in the competition. And while this year UEFA's avoided killing off a great team early (despite the fact that only half of these teams will make it in: Arsenal, Celtic, Fiorentina, Sporting, Atletico, and Panathinaikos), it's only a matter of time before they do. And trust me when I tell you that no one's going to be pleased when Liverpool and Inter square off so that Finland's "real" champion can get a shot.