Wednesday, September 30, 2009

ESPN, Why Are You Jobbing Us?

Somebody call the World Wide Leader's ombudsmen.

As ARF correctly pointed out here, football in America is on the up-and-up. We're able to watch more of it than ever on TV - a fact readily apparent when FutbolNation's "What to Watch and Where" is created. The EPL and la Liga have at least five games on every weekend, sometimes six or seven. The Bundesliga has upwards of four, and even the slumping Serie A gets in on the action with three or four televised games.

Throw in the fact that this year's Champions League final is on a Saturday, we're headed towards a World Cup summer, and DirecTV is blocking off channels to broadcast Champions League, Europa League, and Liga games live and unbeknownst to many, and the old U.S. of A is starting off quite a love affair with the beautiful game. And don't even get me started on the increasing availabilty of HD feeds from overseas. Simply sublime.

And yet, for all their well-packaged, slick advertising about airing la Liga and EPL games, ESPN still can't get it right and is opting to shortchange footie fans across this country. While ESPN has remained true to their word on the EPL, they've fallen rather short when it comes to la Liga. Admittedly, the time slots the EPL games occupy are less competitive than the typically later starting Liga games, and and the EPL is infinitely more popular than la Liga Stateside. But for the number of channels ESPN has, it's inexcusable that most of the Liga games thus far have been relegated to ESPNDeportes.

If ESPN holds the rights to Liga games, and in HD no less (Deportes does not currently broadcast in high definition), how can it avoid fitting these games into its ESPNClassic schedule? ESPNDeportes remains a channel largely unavailable (DirecTV didn't pick it up until 2008) to the U.S. masses and tends to be found on Spanish-language packages. Meanwhile, English speakers can't get the game, but can get the The New Outdoorsmen or some such nonsense that aired parallel to Liga games on ESPNClassic this past weekend.

Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt that ESPN has studied its viewing population extensively. But without the NFL on Sundays, I find it hard to believe that Liga action couldn't earn a more coveted spot in its lineup. Moreover, ABC and ESPN have made a commitment to football, landing the World Cup next summer, and having aired the Euro and Confederations Cup in recent summers. Just like the game continues to grow in the American popular landscape, ESPN should be catering to that growing number of Americans who want to watch Barcelona, even if they are playing a Xerex or Tenerife.

ESPN lost out to Fox when the Champions League rights were up for grabs last. And Fox is doing a phenomenal job selling the competition and making it as widely available as it can. Meanwhile, ESPN seems to be biding its time, almost willing to forfeit the beautiful game to "upstart" FSC. But the fact remains that ESPN has a monopoly on sports in this country, and Fox can't push the sport as much as ESPN could. I still dream of an ESPNSoccer channel with EPL, Liga, European, and international game rights (with big games on ESPN2).

And while that may be a pipe dream now, the truth is that soccer needs ESPN as much as ESPN needs soccer. Even if a consolidated soccer channel may never happen in this country, it'd be great to see ESPN take some pride in the rights they've acquired and at least try and exploit/make available all the soccer games they can air to the widest audience. Who knows, maybe in the short term ESPN2 or ESPNClassic wins with lumberjack competitions, Little League baseball, and dog jumping competitions (which I actually love), but in the long term I'd put money that they're better served by selling soccer to America.

Until then, the term "Worldwide Leader" rings hollow. A lot like when domestic leagues have the audacity to call their winners "World Champions." Mostly pomp and pretension, without much real evidence that they're "world" anythings. ESPN would do well in trying to lead the way in the world's game. I'd be surprised if it weren't more popular and profitable than the NBA games from the 1980s or the boxing matches from the 1970s that they're running on ESPNClassic this weekend.

UPDATE: GolTV will be carrying Sevilla-Real Madrid this weekend. Meanwhile, ESPN2 will carry the one o'clock Sunday game (Racing-Valencia) and ESPNDeportes' lineup is wholly "TBD." Note to ESPN, buy GolTV. Period.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wigan Shocks Chelsea

By far the most notable EPL outcome of the week was Wigan's stunning 3-1 victory over Chelsea. Wigan were greatly helped by the penalty/red card combination that came from Cech bringing down Hugo Rodallega in the box. I still think this decision is far too harsh. The red card rule of the last defender bringing down an attacker is largely just, and certainly so if the foul is deliberate. However, the goalkeeper is hardly ever trying to bring the player down deliberately; it's usually a matter of the keeper going to ground to attempt to win the ball and/or trying to block a possible shot. When the goalkeeper brings down the player unintentionally, giving a red card and a man advantage for the rest of the match, as well as a penalty that is likely to be converted into a goal, is just way too harsh a price for a mistimed challenge.

Still, Carlo Ancelotti had no complaints after the match, saying he thought the result was correct and he did not know why the team did not play well. Chelsea is the last team in the Premier League to taste defeat, though their perfection had to end sometime. Manchester United now find themselves at the top of the table, thanks to a one score advantage in goal difference. United survived a "tricky" (quoting every single analyst before the match) fixture at Stoke that United saw the better of. Stoke created very little, but United failed to finish until the addition of Ryan Giggs for Nani. Nani did have one very good strike on goal, but otherwise hopes for a "breakout" year have gone wanting so far. Giggs, meanwhile, assisted on both United goals, leaving Berbatov a mere tap-in and providing wonderful service on a (dubiously given) free kick headed home by John O'Shea. United continue to win matches while not totally impressing, but with victories over Arsenal, Tottenham (away), and Man City in the bank, it would be hard to find any Red Devils' fans complaining about eighteen points from seven matches.

The Fernando Torres show rolls on. Torres leads the EPL with eight goals early in the season, and nearly all of them featured delightful quality. Torres' hat trick against Hull City in a 6-1 romp featured no exceptions to this rule. El Niño is possibly in the top form he's ever been in. He scored 33 goals in all competitions in his first season in Liverpool, and if he stays healthy the whole season (a significant "if") and stays in current form, he should blow by that figure. Not all is well for Liverpool though, as botched clearances and poor defensive play leave them vulnerable against more talented sides that will make them pay the price. Daniel Agger returning from injury would help provide some valuable depth. On a positive note, Emiliano Insúa seems to have established himself at left back with solid play and useful distribution going forward and within the attack. Liverpool also have ownership news this week, with Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdullah Al Saud (hope that doesn't have to fit on a jersey) expressing his desire to purchase a 50% stake in the club. Despite the 350 million pound figure being thrown about, owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are both playing down expectations about that money being invested in the club. Also they don't have the best relationship, you may have heard. Who knows what's really going on there.

Fulham showed improved form against Arsenal, but still lost 1-0 thanks to Robin van Persie and the heroics of third-string Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone, who made several spectacular saves. It wasn't the brightest performance for Arsenal, but they showed some needed grit that they didn't display in losses to the Manchester clubs. Still, given City's early season form, Arsenal is going to need every point they can get in order to qualify for the Champions League next year. City themselves defeated West Ham 3-1, and were mostly impressive, dominating long stretches of play.

Also notable this weekend was the performance of Robbie Keane in Tottenham's 5-0 thrashing of Burnley. Keane's had four of the goals, and had a wonderful opportunity for a fifth. It's hard not to be skeptical of Tottenham's chances to stay in the midst of the Big Four and Man City in the table. But with Keane, Defoe and Crouch (who scored a Carling Cup hat trick midweek) on the bench, Tottenham have a potent strike force as well as a very capable midfield, particularly when Modrić is healthy.

This upcoming weekend features struggling West Ham hosting struggling Fulham in a surprise relegation battle (for now, anyway). On Monday, Villa look to shrug off a disappointing loss to Blackburn by hosting Manchester City. And by far the biggest clash of the weekend will be Sunday at Stamford Bridge, with Liverpool traveling to face Chelsea. It's too early to eliminate a team like Liverpool from the title chase, but a loss would put them six points behind thanks to their early season losses. Meanwhile Chelsea have feasted on a fairly light schedule to this point, and will be looking to pick up some points against other top competition for the title.

Until then, football all week! The USA-Cameroon U-20 World Cup match is in progress, and the sides will likely be scoreless heading to the break in a mostly uneventful half (edit: USA 1-0! Bryan Arquez pounds home from short distance after a scrum on a free kick). And Champions League matches are today and tomorrow, with Rubin Kazan and Inter currently locked up at 1 at the half. The day's other matches will get going in an hour or so.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Slump Busting

In baseball, and in life, sometimes players go through prolonged hitting slumps. To snap out of it, it's believed that you must swallow your pride and find a "slump buster." You know what I mean. And don't pretend like you've never done it.

Well, right now Washington, DC sports is the fat ugly chick with "Slump Buster" stamped across her forehead.

Need a guaranteed victory on the diamond... come on down! Haven't won a football game since December 2007... we got the remedy for what ails ya! Haven't won a road game in 20 tries, dating back to June 2008... DC United to the rescue!

I know this involves NFL football and not real football, but bear with me. In a fabulous show of sporting power, within about an hour I witnessed the Washington Redskins culminate a more than decade-long run of mediocrity and futility with a humiliating loss to the Detroit Lions, and then saw in person the uber-inconsistent DC United follow up a great 3-0 win against Honduran side Marathon with a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, a team that's only second worst in MLS to historically bad NY Red Bull, a team that last won a road game 477 days ago.

The week before, after a pathetic home victory, Washington fans booed the Redskins, letting out frustration at not just the underperforming team and in-over-his-head coach, but largely at one of the worst owners/front offices in sports, one who has created a long-simmering atmosphere of antipathy among the fan base. This week, after losing at home in RFK stadium, once a feared venue for visiting MLS teams, DC United fans booed and began chants of "Fire Soehn!" It was the second straight regular season home loss for DC United, to go along with five ties out of thirteen games. Five! It's like we're in Liverpool or something.

Granted, there is a difference between DC United and the Redskins, aside from overtly racist name. As has happened more than once this season, DC United dominated possession. San Jose barely touched the ball in the first half. Yet defensive letdowns and the inability to kill off a game that should have been long won came back to haunt them again. The Redskins just suck and got outplayed the entire game.

If I actually had to analyze things, Coach Soehn is largely to blame for DCU's woes, and while Coach Zorn is likely to go at some point this season, the real culprits at Redskin Park are the Danny and his puppet Executive Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato. DCU's front office, on the other hand, isn't the real root of the problem. Like any team, president and CEO of DC United Kevin Payne has had his misses to go along with his hits. Though both have worn down this year and have passed their peaks, Christian Gomez and Luciano Emilio were great finds, combining for two MVPs, a Golden Boot, and leading DCU to an MLS Cup, two Supporters Shields, and an Open Cup title.

Payne has drafted decently as well, including getting Chris Pontius, who mark my words will be playing for the full US Men's National Team during the 2014 World Cup qualifying cycle, and Rodney Wallace this year. Yet Soehn never seems to pick his best 11, changing lineups and sticking with disastrous players like Greg Janicki and Fred for far too long, while never settling on a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation. Even when players are playing every match, they are often being forced to play in a different position each game.

DC United at least brings with it a sense of stability and continuity. That comes from the front office and key players that have been around for a number of years forming the spine of the team, namely Ben Olsen, Jamie Moreno, Clyde Simms, and Bryan Namoff. Add in the youngsters I mentioned before, and this is a team that is capable of winning, which they've done. But sometimes to put it all together, you do in fact need a coaching change. Unfortunately this is MLS, so there are no Manuel Pellegrinis or Carlo Ancelottis waiting to come right the ship of a talented, previously trophy-winning team. That means most likely a previous MLS player or some US Soccer retread. What about player-coach Ben Olsen?! This is one place where the US seriously lacks, both in MLS and among the National Teams. Anyone who saw the U-20 match against Germany knows that Thomas Rongen is an idiot - leaving at least three usual starters on the bench, the ones who helped the team qualify, and then playing a 4-3-3 against the European Champions, hello, these are 19 year olds, some not even professionals, not la blaugrana! Anyway, I don't have an answer for that, but hopefully Kevin Payne does, and I'll be waiting to see what changes are in store, most likely after this season, so that DC can start shedding some weight and lose that large "Slump Buster" tag.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

So Much Futbol!

We keep hearing and reading these arguments, as HalaMadrid so dutifully pointed out, that this league is better than that one, no this other one is better, and that other league is pulling the Plax Burress and shooting itself into irrelevancy, etc. etc. etc. Of course we here never stoke those infernos. (Hala's post on La Liga is a must read to get you caught up on the current status of La Liga.)

What of course is fabulous about all this is the mere fact that here in the USA we can actually keep track of all these leagues, not just on the internets, but on real live TV, with matches seemingly all day every day. Just this morning I already watched Tim Howard and the crossbar steal three points for Everton against a lively but unfortunate Portsmouth team that is breaking records for futility. I'm now flipping back and forth between the USA-Germany U-20 match (can't tell if the US is playing badly or if the team is just rather underwhelming), Hull City-Liverpool (shockingly Torres is ripping Hull apart), and Wolfsburg-Hanover (another goalfest typical of Wolfsburg), not to mention watching an internet stream of Man U leading at Stoke, which as the pundits keep repeating ad nauseam is a tricky away tie (Ryan Giggs is simply amazing and his introduction turned the match). More games are to come, with Barca-Malaga particularly set for must viewing.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie Trecker got into the discussion, weighing in on the boom of available matches. Mr. Trecker focuses on how top level European football is spearheading the boom, while MLS and local matches are falling behind dangerously. Of course, unsurprising again, Jamie is a little behind the curve on reaching his conclusion, as even ESPN's Sports Guy has been claiming this in written columns and podcasts for some time now. In fact, it's not like this argument hasn't been made since MLS was founded and the contrarians claimed it was doomed to failure because as Americans we are used to and expect the best product and MLS would never be the best on-field product for soccer in the world.

So, is this going to be the case? With the glut of high quality games on TV now (and isn't watching the games that are available on HD just beautiful?), the US team being competitive with the better teams in the world and usually getting great coverage from ESPN, the MLS is often an afterthought for both the hardcore fans who follow their favorite teams or leagues overseas, and the casual fan who only wants to watch the big or important games. Just this Thursday I was one of a handful of people who bothered showing up for a CONCACAF Champions League match between DC United and CD Marathon. It's unfortunate because it was actually a good performance by DC United, among its best all season, and it would have been a good showing for the casual fan to see that an MLS side can play good soccer. I have numerous friends who aren't regular soccer fans, but I do hear from them when it comes to big time international or European matches. When USA was beating Spain and playing Mexico, or when the big teams meet in the UEFA Champions League, I often get messages from friends who usually only devote their time to fantasy football (the NFL kind) or Yankees-Red Sox or Kobe v. Lebron. But I am encouraged by the simple fact that they are watching or following those events, whereas they probably would not have before. I even had a conversation with a friend over the Champions League draw, something I usually reserved for my brother or friends like HalaMadrid or my fellow DC United season ticket holders and the guys on my men's league team.

Nonetheless, the concern is still there that the quality of MLS soccer is too inconsistent. You can see some pretty good soccer played, but for every match of high quality, there's another two that simply aren't worth watching. The big problem is the crowds and atmospheres. Games at Toronto and Seattle are almost always entertaining because the crowds are great. DC United games used to be like that, but RFK stadium's ongoing erosion and collapse combined with a disappointing DC team has taken the luster off things. LA and Chicago also get good crowds and can play exciting soccer. Wait, let me correct that. LA can play exciting soccer, Chicago, well, they are successful generally. Other teams can get good crowds for certain matches against rivals.

On the other hand, a number of teams just bring down the rest of the league with them when it comes to their stadia and fan support. Kansas City simply shouldn't have a team, and FC Dallas has little support. NY Red Bulls, well, I'm not even sure what's the right adjective for them. Pathetic? Inept? Wretched? Abhorrent? Odious? I could go on. NY has been so bad for so long and stuck at Giants Stadium that it's hard to imagine them ever improving. As much as I dislike them, I do want them draw more than 5,000 people to a game, and I hope the new stadium will greatly improve their situation. And Red Bull Arena looks like it's going to be an unbelievable stadium, so I can't wait to make a trip there to see DC United win in such stylish new digs. With a new stadium, let's see if the Red Bull management team can bring in a marquee player who won't be a bust to play with Jaun Pablo Angel, who continues to chug along as one of the best players in the league despite playing with 10 other players wearing those ugly Red Bull uniforms.

Much like in Italy and the Serie A, stadiums will play a key part in building the league. The stadiums will give teams much needed revenue streams, which eventually can help grow the league and bring in better players with better salaries. And it goes without saying that smaller, soccer-specific stadiums will help improve atmospheres. Yet I'm given pause by soccer specific stadiums that haven't done that. FC Dallas hasn't worked out, and even Columbus hasn't had great attendance despite having a good team defending their MLS Cup championship. They have the original soccer specific stadium, although upon seeing it, it's amazing how from the outside it is one ugly building, just a big concrete warehouse looking thing. But the inside is still nice and can produce good atmospheres if the fans just show up.

Part of me is very wary of MLS expanding too much, too quickly because it will just dilute the currently super thin talent pool, and if some of the bad MLS teams get any worse, well things could get quite bleak. However, expansion is still good when it's done in key places and MLS is right to make sure new teams bring with them guarantees of soccer specific stadiums. Toronto is the best model for this, and despite the artificial turf, the stadium experience is great. Seattle is upping the stakes for fan enthusiasm, which makes up for the fact that they play in a football stadium. At least they're filling out the lower bowl. When Philly enters the league in 2010, with their new stadium coming, I hope they can match Toronto and Seattle. Portland is also set to join in 2011 along with Vancouver, and I have no doubt they will equal Seattle's enthusiasm and create a great Northwest rivalry.

Still, many people are throwing out drastic ideas about how to get MLS to get more fans who are otherwise turning to European football. Going to a single table would be nice, but I doubt that's going to do much for bringing in new fans. I guess the hope is that bringing in a single table would increase the importance of the Supporters Shield winner as the regular season champion. Unfortunately it's too ingrained in US sporting culture to focus on winners of a postseason tournament, and as long as there is an MLS Cup and playoffs, the Supporters Shield will get the short shrift. Relegation is simply a non-starter in MLS for the foreseeable future, so why waste time even discussing it. Relocation might be a good idea for those teams that are struggling, for instance moving Kansas City to St. Louis seems like a no brainer. Yet moving teams would just reinforce the idea among the non-MLS observer that the league is struggling and second rate. Switching the schedule to mirror the European season? I'm not sure it's a great idea, more competition with other US sports will not be beneficial, and one of the benefits of MLS's current format is that late Spring, Summer, and early Fall weather is conducive to bringing in casual fans who just want to be out in the nice weather.

I do think that European and international soccer will hit a little bit of a boon, particularly with all the World Cup coverage on the way this summer. Can it be sustained? I think it's possible. And I disagree with those who argue that the long held belief that the young generation of kids who populated so many youth leagues and would grow up to fill the on-field talent pool and fill the stands is falling short. I'm really part of the first US-born generation that grew up playing so much youth soccer and watched the growth of the sport on TV and the internet, and I'm only 27. This is only MLS's 14th season. I was 14 when MLS started. The generation growing up with MLS is just reaching adulthood. As it gets older, and start having kids who grow up with the sport in it's more advanced state than when I was a kid, that's when soccer in the US should gain a better foothold. (As an example here's an interesting article on how Chivas USA has slowly won over many Hispanic fans and created it's own culture and identity among fans separate from Chivas de Guadalajara.) Additionally, all those kids are producing new and better talent. First Landon Donovan, and now Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore anyone?

Boosting viewership of European soccer helps deepen the ties between Americans and the sport generally, and the more roots and stronger foundations in place for the sport will eventually help MLS grow as well.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Month in the World's Best League (Which one?)

In the past week several mainstream outlets have addressed how exciting the EPL is , how boring la Liga is, and how badly the EPL's defenses are playing. So my first urge is to launch into another ardent defense of la Liga. But, as we say in Spanish, "Las comparaciones son odiosas." Or, "Comparisons are detestable." Not to mention subjective. The EPL is either lax at the back, or exciting because of the goals scored. La Liga's received that criticism for several years now. Alternatively, this year's liga is the most exciting as Ronaldo v. Messi and Barcelona v. Madrid take center stage ... or as Lucy Turner argues in the above link, the most boring with the two favorites running away with it. Alas, there are truly two sides to every coin. So perhaps I'll just lean back, enjoy that over here in the New World we're seeing more of both leagues than ever, and stick to loving on my league, rather than going all District 9 and marginalizing the EPL.

So, speaking of lovin' on la Liga...

We're four games in, and already some judgments can be made. For example, after 62 years in second division, Xerex (0 pts.) will be returning there very shortly. But it's a bit early to be judging on points alone, so let's take a closer look at the table and check in on the form of la Liga thus far.

Directly above Xerex are Atletico Madrid and Villarreal, with two apiece. For Villarreal sitting at 18th is somewhat surprising as they're representing Spain in the Europa Cup this year and have fared remarkably well in recent years (2nd place, Champions League semis). To be fair, they've looked a strong side and picked up all three points in Europe and lost to a strong Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao side. Not to mention new coach Ernesto Valverde has rolled into town and key player Marcos Senna has been out to injury. They looked good with only ten men at midweek against Real Madrid and gave the merengues all they could handle. I'm still looking for them to return to "Europa" next season.

Somehow, though more talented, this Atletico side is the more worrying of these two bottom dwellers. Blessed with Aguero and Forlan, the team's management learned nothing from last season's European adventure. Atletico's starting eleven, especially midfield forward can run with anyone. Their back four are strictly pedestrian, and the team has only gotten thinner. Going down to Porto last year, only a rally at the close of the league and Valencia's collapse saved them from christening the Europa Cup. Perhaps more worrisome is the mental fragility of the team in all senses - on the pitch, the fans, and the management. It's often the plight of the loveable losers, but it truly is time for Atletico to step it up. They couldn't get past a goalless draw against Cypriot outfit APOEL in Madrid, or against Almeria and Racing in league. Not to mention the humiliation at the Camp Nou. Eventually, their talent will (hopefully) propel them to, at worst, a middle of the table spot. But by then the side could be out of Europe (especially with Chelsea and Porto in their group), and back on their way to mediocrity.

Malaga (17th, 3 pts.) and Zaragoza (15th, 4 pts.) are two teams that have always had a soft spot in my heart. Malaga's a beautiful city, and you can see Malaga's stadum, la Rosaleda, from the back side of the city's gorgeous Arab castle, the Alcazaba. Zaragoza I've never been to, but have some ties to and I'll always remember seeing the sight of thousands of fans weeping as their team went down to segunda in 2008 on the last matchday, after 40 plus years in primera. Both sit above Atletico and Villarreal, are competitive but probably can't aspire to much more than that last European spot or a nice showing in the King's Cup. Malaga is into their second year in the first division and continue to play a nice brand of attacking football. Their three points came at the expense of Atletico in an opening day 3-0 blanking of the boys from the capital. Zaragoza is far from the side that went down to second division in 2008 in a year they had hoped to aspire to a European berth of some kind. Their year in hell has rather depleted the side, and they'll do well to stay up and keep rebuilding. Up and onwards, hopefully, for these two.

Indeed, the 7th place spot all the way down to 16th is a cluster of 4, 5, or 6 points, with only a few teams standing out as teams that could surprise and compete for a Champions League spot. If any of the teams earning six points might have a chance, then the goal differential actually does a good job of identifying them this week: Deportivo (7th), Getafe (8th), and Espanyol (9th) look the best of the middle. Otherwise, its difficult to determine who will pull away from the pack over the course of the season. But as we gaze upwards is where things really get interesting.

Valencia sits in 6th with 7 points, and Mallorca occupies the spot directly above with the same point total. Valencia, alongside Villarreal, were the two teams that most Liga fans hoped would represent it in this year's Champions League, as the vulnerabilities of Atletico were apparent a long way out. The "ches" (a nickname picked up when the club was inundated with Argentines) did well to keep Villa, Silva, and Mata this summer, and their attacking trident continues to play well. A bit deeper than Atletico, Valencia's real problem may have been the loss of Raul Albiol. Already an undisputed starter in Madrid, the Valencia rearguard has looked disoriented for much of this season. It will be interesting if Unai Emery's men can get their act together and compete in the Europa League as well as grab a Champions League spot for next year. One would hope so, though it seems just as likely that Sir Alex snaps up Silva in that time, and Valencia falter even further. Mallorca won't occupy their current spot for much longer, as this Gregorio Manzano side lost several key players last summer, including Venezuelan star Arango, and were set to do little more than avoid relegation. Hats off to them for their early success, but middle of table should be about right in a few months.

Sevilla (3rd) and Athletic (4th) are tied with 9 points, and this comes as no surprise for the men from Andalusia. The Sevillans have built their success on the back of loudmouth president Jose Maria Del Nido and more importantly sporting director "Monchi." Despite the losses of Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Julio Baptista, Reyes, and Saviola in recent years, the club always finds a way to regenerate itself and keep its top spots. Their zeal for attacking football doesn't hurt either. Their form has been tops this season, with their only loss coming opening day after they were reduced to ten men (red to Kanoute) against Valencia. These are the odds on favorites for that third place spot ... again. Athletic is the more novel of the two teams. Historically one of la Liga's great teams (Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Athletic are the only sides never to go down), the Basques have been less than impressive in recent years. But a glut of young talent and the development of a striker of Llorente's caliber have catapulted the men from la Catedral to Champions Leagues spots. They tend to score with their head, and if they keep it on straight, these "chicarrones del Norte" might just be with Europe's elite next year. It's ambitous, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who'd complain in seeing Athletic's return to glory.

Of course, recent debate has centered around the top two teams, Barcelona (1st) and Real Madrid (2nd) both with twelve points. Is it a two horse race? Probably, but can you honestly tell me the EPL isn't? (Smart money's on Manchester Utd. and Chelsea). And by "probably" I mean, "I see no way in hell any team but these two could win the league." Do I care? Somewhat, but it's a special year when the world's greatest team is met by a team aspiring (and actually making the moves necessary) to take their place.

Barcelona need little introduction, as for all intents and purposes they've only grown more compact as a unit and increased their fluid play this year, cementing them as the best club in Europe (for now). Ibrahimovic has scored in each of the first four games, and Messi only seems spurred on by this, picking up a brace against Racing Santander in response to Zlatan's opener. Guardiola has complained the squad is a bit thin, which could cost them considering the enormously draining season that awaits them after winning everything known to man last year. Not to mention the adverse effects of the African Cup of Nations on Barca's roster. Messi has five goals in four games, and the blaugrana train just keeps churning forward destroying everything in its path. It's a joy to watch, even for someone who hates Barcelona, because to truly hate them, you have to love football. And on the club level they're the greatest exponent of the sport right now, as demonstrated in their destruction of Racing midweek with two crackers from Messi. And don't even get me started on the six-touch from keeper to Ibra chip goal against Atletico, or Ibra's heel flick feed to Pique against Racing. If a team from the capital hadn't made it a point to compete with the machine known as Barcelona, this league might well be over now.

Real Madrid, to be fair, has sputtered out of the gate, if not in results certainly in style. The Madrid press is starting to get nervous, ridiculously so, since the team added seven new starters this summer. Pellegrini has done well to rotate the players thus far, keeping all the egos in check. He has not, however, quite figured out the perfect formation and alternates between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-2-2. Both would probably work, and my instinct is that it's more a matter of time playing together and less one of formation for Real. Once the players truly get to know each other and their natural positioning I have very litte doubt that the show the merengues will put on will rival if not surpass the Catalans. Pellegrini's penchant for attacking football meshed with strong defending, and his encouragement of fluidity for the men up top bode well for the team. But everything takes time and patience, and so far the results are buying the Chilean these assets. CR9, meanwhile, also has five goals in four games (seven in five if you count Champions League) and is already paying dividends. Kaka may have a better handle on the team as a whole by virtue of his position, but Ronaldo is bringing the spectacle, scoring in every way known to man. The Portuguese international's midfield slolem against Villarreal was a masterpiece, and once the team begins to play as one instead of surviving on individuals, well, let's just say this year's Clasico (end of November) will be must see TV of the highest order.

But focusing in on this weekend, Valencia greet Atletico in a game the colchoneros need much more than the ches. That said, the weak defenses and superlative attackers in this game should make for an open, fluid, and highscoring affair. Sad to say, it could also be a determinative game for Atletico, as one more debacle could send the team into a tailspin. A less critical but equally interesting match will be the 3 v. 4 encounter between Sevilla and Athletic. Can the Basques bounce back from midweek defeat and use their pragmatism to defeat freeflowing Sevilla? I think not, but we'll have to wait and see. Villarreal v. Deportivo is another attractive match, but of course, all eyes will be on Barcelona and Real Madrid, as these two giants continue on their paths to greatness. As Ronaldo pointed out this week, we'll only know who the best is at season's end. It'll be a joy to watch them along the way, and while someone's heart will be broken come May, it'd be foolish not to enjoy this honeymoon of a season.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Additional Bits: Injuries, U-20 World Cup

It's impossible not to be enthralled right now by the football being played by Barca, but their most recent demolition job, against Racing Santander, may have cost them - with Ibra injuring his ankle and now doubtful for the match against Malaga this weekend. I fully admit to thinking his playing style would not mesh well with Barca's style, particularly in light of how different a player he is from Eto'o, who was so successful in the Barca system. Well, so far Guardiola and co. seem to have this thing figured out, and his abilities are fitting in with the passing and movement of the 4-3-3 system perfectly. Fortunately this doesn't look like a long-term injury, and Zlatan's absence doesn't exactly tip the balance in favor of the Andalusians.

Speaking of injuries, as soon as I mention his name, there is an Owen Hargreaves sighting! Fergie claims Hargeaves will be available for the last three Champions League group matches. Usually this would be a big boost for Man U, and it may still be, but he's been gone for so long does anyone remember what type of player he is?

Continuing the injury theme, Stephen Appiah is being looked at by Catania. The once-promising player has had his career derailed by injuries and is currently a free agent. He failed an attempt to come back with Tottenham, and rumors had him possibly coming to MLS, but it's surprising he still hasn't caught on somewhere. Appiah is also captain of the "Footballers Who Look Like They Should Be a Gangster or Militia Soldier All-Stars," along with Nemanja Vidic, ex-football and current player of gangsters in the movies Vinnie Jones, and Joey Barton. Oh wait, sorry, Joey Barton only acts like a thug.

The FIFA U-20 World Cup starts up Thursday in Egypt. While some of the more established players under 20 years of age will remain with their clubs and won't be there (e.g., players like Bojan Krkic, Frederico Macheda, Jozy Altidore), this will surely highlight players of the future. Here are some key names to look out for, and here's a general preview of the tournament. Golden Ball winners at the tournament have included a host of famous players, particularly Argentines, who have dominated such youth tournaments. Some of the names include Maradona, Seydou Keita, Javier Saviola, Messi, and most recently Kun Aguero. I followed the 2007 edition of this tournament and there were a number of extremely entertaining matches, including a USA-Brazil match that contained better football than usually played in 90% of professional matches not involving teams with names like Barcelona or Manchester United (at least relative to the inexperience of the players). That match saw current full internationals Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Freddy Adu (I guess he's a sort-of full international) outduel Alexandre Pato and Jô. We'll keep an eye out for you and let you know some key matches to watch. And watch you can, because every match will be covered by one of the ESPN platforms! Of course that includes ESPN360, which you may not get, but at least its an option.

Wednesday's News and Notes

Sol Campbell is leaving Notts County after one month and one match played. Do you care? Should you? I do if only because Sven Goran's failures are only becoming more tragic by the year.

It looks like Mark Hughes is willing to let his players and their "emotions" run free. In this case it's Bellamy's behavior at the Manchester derby at issue. While I don't take issue with Bellamy's issue since fans have no place on the pitch, a manager who seems willing to simply accept what his players do spells trouble in my book. Coupled with Adebayor's incident against Arsenal, it may be discipline and control that unravels this City side.

In more disciplinary news, the FA is looking at Mascherano's swing against Leeds yesterday. The Reds can ill afford to lose Mascherano right now.

Eto'o just won't stop stirring the pot. Samuel wants 3 million euros from Barcelona that represent the 15% a player is entitled to upon transfer. Barca argues that the percentage is only relevant in sales between Spanish sides, and further, is paid by the buying club, in this case Inter. Eto'o and Barcelona are set to mediate the issue.

Accusations of racism are being levelled in Engalnd . In particular, Senegalese striker El Hadji Diouf alleged bananas were thrown his way in the Blackburn-Everton match played at Goodison Park. A Stoke City supporter also racially abused a Blackpool substitute in a separate incident.

It's not the first time Diouf has been involved in controversy though, as this compendium of bad acts shows.

Speaking of controversy, in a story that overflows with ridiculousness and possible mental infirmity, you may recall hearing that referee Massimo Busacca (who refereed last year's Champions League final) gave the finger to fans watching a Swiss Cup game. Now, reports (and video) are revealing that Mr. Busacca also urinated on the field while serving as a guest referee in a September 12th match in Qatar.

This Telegraph article posits that the EPL may be on its most exciting season yet. This is based on both the percentage of late game-winners and the sheer number of goals. The Manchester derby and Chelsea's modus operandi of late certainly speak to the late goals. Throw in that 25% of all goals have been scored in the last twenty minutes, and an current average of 2.84 goals per game, and excitement is sure to follow. Is this as exciting as the three goals per game average in la Liga? Probably not. Has this study inspired me to conduct my own study of late game goals and goal average in Spain? Absolutely. Results (and perhaps justifications) to come on FutbolNation.

Speaking of Spain, Barcelona played champagne football for a full ninety in their 4-1 thrashing of Racing Santander yesterday. Sevilla cruised to a 2-0 win against a Mallorca side that had not tasted defeat in its first three games of the season. Meanwhile, today Abel Resino's Atletico Madrid side look for redemption and survival against Almeria. Real Madrid, on the other hand, look to shift their formation to a 4-3-1-2 after a disappointingly-played 5-0 win against Xerex last weekend. To many this smells of the 4-3-3 Barcelona implement, but if that's what needs to be played, then so be it. Last I checked Guardiola didn't invent that formation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Derby Highlight of EPL Weekend

Most of the substance of the terrific Manchester derby has already been covered by ARF, but there's just too much to say about it to not weigh in. As far as the timing issue, I couldn't agree more with the referee who allowed the minute and a half beyond the posted extra time in order to allow for the goal celebration and for the late substitution. Too often referees just blindly follow the posted time as if it were some sort of absolute figure. This avoids controversy, but fails to adhere to the purpose of stoppage time: to allow a full ninety minutes to be played, not including the times spent on goal celebrations, substitutions and injuries. To rigidly follow the posted extra time allows teams with the lead to stall by substituting; ironically, if the substitution was in normal time, this time would be added back on! Now whether Owen's game-winning goal was within the minute and a half was close and debatable. It appeared the goal celebration was fifty-five seconds and the substitution took about thirty seconds. So it's possible the goal was beyond time, though it can the be argued the referee didn't want to stop play in the middle of a threat to score. Regardless, I applaud the impulse to actually play the match to its finish.

Of course, Mark Hughes is still furious, wanting an explanation why ninety-seven mintes were played in total. The ninety-seven minute figure is silly, unless Hughes wanted the final whistle to be blown during the goal celebration. Hughes will get even less comfort from this Guardian study finding Manchester United typically receive an extra minute of stoppage time at home when they are behind or tied compared to when they are ahead. There's an obvious sample size problem when only twelve matches in the study are on the "losing or tied" end, but it's interesting nonetheless. Sir Alex promptly rubbed salt in Hughes' wounds by referring to City as "noisy neighbors" again and insinuating they could have won 6-0. Stay classy "Sir" Alex. And for further good news for City, the Manchester police and the FA are investigating an incident of Craig Bellamy shoving a fan who came onto the field after the game. If you charge the field and confront an opposing player, there's a good chance you'll get shoved. The real question is whether it was a punch rather than a shove. The photograph attached to this story isn't helping Bellamy's cause.

Outside the city of Manchester, the two most significant matches were at Stamford Bridge and Upton Park. Chelsea defeated Tottenham 3-0 to remain perfect after six matches, and are the lone side without a loss. Chelsea are of course expected to go the distance in the title race and compete to the end. After earning the full twelve points in the first four matches, the question was whether Spurs could do the same. That question appears to have been negatively over the last two matches against United and Chelsea: six goals conceded and only one goal scored. To be fair, those scorelines are somewhat harsh. Tottenham scored first against United and were in it until Rooney's late goal finished the match. Against Chelsea, Tottenham controlled play at times and created chances. But they didn't convert and Chelsea did, and that one phrase sums up the difference in quality between the sides. Perhaps the match would have been different had Robbie Keane been given the penalty he deserved before the second Chelsea goal. Perhaps not. Tottenham do have a much lighter schedule to come, having already faced Liverpool and United at home and Chelsea and West Ham on the road. A string of wins might once again establish the possibility of their title contention.

Liverpool's three points at West Ham were the result of one man, at least as much as that can ever be true in the game of football. Fernando Torres scored twice, single-handedly creating the first goal by beating his defender and toe-poking the ball past the keeper. The second goal came off a wonderfully directed header on a cross from the shockingly useful Ryan Babel. Babel has spent most of the season on the bench whining to the press about not being in the first team (while not deserving it), but now says he was misquoted and will attempt to earn his spot. Babel actually injected energy off the bench, and may find more playing time as a result. Liverpool continue to struggle at the back, with both Skrtel and Carragher in poor form especially in the first half, Carragher having also conceded a borderline penalty. Liverpool also conceded yet another goal off a set piece, this time a corner. The nine goals conceded already this season are not impressing anyone. But the Reds found three points thanks to brilliance from Torres, and remain in the early season title hunt. Liverpool now face a once-great Leeds side in the Carling Cup mid-week and host Hull next weekend. The schedule really ramps the next week with an away Champions League visit to Fiorentina and then a visit to Stamford Bridge. Liverpool will not want to let Chelsea open an early nine point gap with an away loss.

After the Carling Cup fixtures mid-week, next weekend doesn't contain any premier matches. United does face a tricky away fixture at Stoke, while Arsenal have to visit Craven Cottage and Fulham. Fulham lost unimpressively to Wolves and will be looking for a change in form. Chelsea go away to Wigan, while Man City host West Ham on a Monday fixture that will be televised on ESPN2.

Manchester, Barcelona, Real Madrid Highlights

Highlights from the Manchester Derby:

Barcelona thrashing Atletico Madrid 5-2:

Not to be outdone, Real Madrid dropping five on Xerez (how bad was the defending on the third goal?):

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Manchester Derby: Early Game of the Season?

"Sometimes you have a noisy neighbor. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy. You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder." -SAF

If the European season and World Cup can produce a few games to match today's Manchester Derby, well then we'll be in for quite a treat.

This game had so many story lines going in, you often wonder whether the match can live up to the hype, and are only amazed when the game far exceeds it. Three Manchester United leads, three City comebacks, and Michael Owen's late late late winner left at least this observer a little stunned after all the action.

I suppose any and all discussions must start with Carlos Tevez. We've all know the background story, and the back and forth snipings, I'm sure. To his credit, Tevez was coming back from a knee injury and played a major part in much of the action.

After Rooney's opening goal, City equalized after a Ben Foster blunder allowed Tevez to steal the ball and set up Gareth Barry for a cool finish. Tevez also assisted on Craig Bellamy's first goal. However, Tevez also hit the post when he probably should have scored in the first half, and his role in Owen's injury time winner hasn't been discussed much. Let me to do the honors. Tevez's foul set up the Rooney free kick that initialized the final sequence. Rooney's ball was poor and the clearance came right back to Tevez, but Tevez neither controlled the ball to kill the final seconds, nor did he manage to flick the ball past Rooney. This enabled Rooney to send the ball back toward the box, where it eventually found Giggs, who subsequently found Owen. For all his hard work, if Tevez does better on two occasions at the end there, City may steal the point.

As for Man U, Foster continues a long line of shaky English goalkeeping. After gifting the first, he can't be blamed for City's second goal, an excellent shot by Craig Bellamy. But Foster played Bellamy's second goal very poorly. While Rio Ferdinand is entirely at fault on that play for his absurd, casual scoop-pass attempt/giveaway, Foster probably could have done better.

Man U did have plenty of good performances, including a fabulous game by Ryan Giggs, who 700 starts in continues to be a key cog of the Red Devil machine (unlike Paul Scholes, who is on his last legs). Giggs's pass to Owen was perfect, enabling Tevez's replacement to do what he's always been able to do, coolly and calmly finish as a finisher should.

Rooney keeps looking like he's going to really reach another level, stepping out of Ronaldo's shadow, which bodes well for Man U's hopes of retaining their title this season (and England will hope it lasts through the summer). He continued his hot streak with another very well taken goal that showed Rooney's strength and balance.

Antonio Valencia could well be doomed to disappoint because he will forever be thought of as the man brought in after Cristiano Ronaldo, but in the second half he brought width and helped push Man U's attack to another gear. Ji-Sung Park may have started, but it's unlikely he will keep his place in key games.

Special note must be given for Darren Fletcher. Though still often taken for granted or overlooked, he is gradually being recognized as one of the more important players on Man U. An abundance of players have been brought in to fortify the Man U midfield (remember Owen Hargreaves?), particularly in search of the heir to Roy Keane. Fletcher continues to fight off many challengers and is usually first choice for all the big games. He's no Roy Keane, but it's players of his ilk that separate the winners of Man U from the nearly-men (or boys) of Arsenal, and probably Man City this season. Those teams can win in style, but struggle in the tough games that need a player with the fortitude of a Darren Fletcher. (Note that Chelsea has these players, hence their titles; Liverpool has everything-man Gerrard and Mascherano, but no title yet.) Fletcher's absence in the Champions League final last season was bemoaned by Sir Alex and all of Man U's players, and while he single handedly would not have altered that result, his past two displays against Tottenham and now Man City have cemented his status and importance. His two headed goals today were well taken and should have won the game prior to the frantic final minutes of extra time.

As for Man City, despite being dominated in the second half, they showed signs that they will be a dangerous team. Remember they didn't even have arguably their best two players - Adebayor and Robinho. Yet they still remain a ways off before truly contending. Their defense is certainly not up to snuff, even though Man U would certainly swap Ben Foster for Shay Given. City's midfield also lacks the quality of Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool, though Nigel de Jong showed promising signs in the first half.

Of course I can't forget to mention the controversy surrounding the final goal. The fourth referee indicated 4 minutes of extra time. The clock read 95:28 when the ball hit the back of the net. Mark Hughe's certainly has something to complain about. However, the Bellamy equalizer came during extra time, so if you add on the an extra minute for the goal celebrations and the last Man U sub, that get's you to five extra minutes. I guess the last 30 seconds came from the ref not wanting to kill the game in the midst of a final attack. Clearly Man U got a little benefit from being the home team. Fully admitted I think. But I also hate when a ref ends extra time right on the dot even if the ball is in the middle of a chance. Not a great argument I know. But still, Man U deserved the three points today, and City will just need to build on this performance the rest of the season. Mark on your calendars April 17, 2010, when the return fixture is played, likely with a lot on the line with only three games after that remaining in the 2009-2010 season.

Old Trafford's Stretford End may have said it best in rebuking the new blue half of Manchester (and really this applies to the Blues over in London as well) - "Your Players Make Money, Our Players Make History."

(Video definitely to come)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hardest shot follow up

This morning HalaMadrid posted a cool fact that Ronaldo's free kicks were around 60 mph against FC Zurich this week, and comparing it to Becks, Alves, and Ronaldinho (all slower) and Robert Carlos (faster). Certainly that makes those shots tougher to save, but as bzimzim commented, even at that speed if the shot is straight at the keeper, he has to make that save. I agree. The second of Ronaldo's goals should have been saved. The ball moved some, yes, but Ronaldo has had other shots with more movement, and this one was still right at the keeper.

Anyway, this reminded me of how MLS used to have stupid challenges at their stupid all-star game, much like the NHL has (though I do like some of the NHL all-star stuff). Zach Thornton, a keeper, won a few in a row, with his shots coming in at about 81 mph according to the radar gun.

After some further digging, it turns out The Guardian analyzed the archives of shots recorded by the Sky Sports Replay 2000 tracking machine. Remember, this is very unofficial, and it's (a) from Feb 2007, so it doesn't include Ronaldo's efforts since that time, (b) these are one-offs and not how someone shoots on average, and (c) the games tracked are basically only those involving English teams, with one exception - the famous Roberto Carlos goal against France.

Here's the list:

1) David Hirst - 114mph (for Sheffield Wednesday @ Arsenal on September 16 1996)

2) David Beckham - 97.9mph (for Man Utd v Chelsea on February 22 1997)

3) David Trezeguet - 96mph (for Monaco @ Man Utd on March 19 1998)

4) Richie Humphreys - 95.9mph (for Sheffield Wednesday v Aston Villa on August 17 1996)

5) Matt Le Tissier - 86.8mph (for Southampton v Newcastle on January 18 1997)

6) Alan Shearer - 85.8mph (for Newcastle v Leicester on February 2 1997)

7) Roberto Carlos - 85.2mph (for Brazil v France on June 3 1997)

8) Tugay - 84.2mph (for Blackburn @ Southampton on November 3 2001)

9) Obafemi Martins - 84mph (for Newcastle @ Tottenham on January 14 2007)

10) David Beckham - 80.5mph (for Man Utd @ Derby on September 4 1996)

For comparison, here are the Real Madrid-Zurich highlights, including Ronaldo's shots:

And here is the unofficial fastest shot recorded by David Hirst (note he didn't even score, he hits the crossbar - at 0:33 of the clip):

For fun, here's one more thunderbolt that's not on the list, by Steven Reid. The page says it was 189kmh, or about 117mph. This is a hell of a shot:

The final shot, by Ronny Heberson, was supposedly tracked at 222kmh, or almost 138mph.

On the more technical side, this article/blog discusses the science of Ronaldo's shots, namely that the way he strikes the ball with no spin is the key. This allows the shots to go fast for a longer distance than others. However, a sports technology researcher says it's not possible to hit a shot 132mph, but that the high 80s was doable for shots tracked at training grounds. What do you think?

Friday's News and Notes

The continuing saga of Adebayor's disgraceful actions against Arsenal only continues. After the FA approved his three-match ban earlier this week, now comes news of his stomping on Cesc Fabregas even before the sanctioned face stomp on Van Persie. While the other ex-Arsenal player on Man City, Kolo Toure, went into the dressing room to apologize directly after the match, Adebayor has limited himself to pathetically justifying his actions, and repeatedly at that. Mark Hughes as we no know, has only served to enable this type of behavior. Thankfully Arsene Wenger injected some sense into the discussion, though if the Cesc stamp is found to be intentional, it should be the FA extending Adebayor's ban for what was absolutely inexcusable behavior on the pitch last weekend.

Looking forward, however, we find Sir Alex has begun the war of words between United and City. On whether he was worried about Tevez being fit for the derby, Sir Alex minced no words in stating that without Adebayor, City were missing their best player. Rio Ferdinand, despite fitness issues that could prevent his playing the derby, didn't hold back either, knocking City down a few notches with his comments.

Sir Alex has earned the right to talk trash - but has Harry Redknapp, and to Chelsea, no less?

Reo-Coker apparently went all "Sprewell" on Martin O'Neill at practice.

Is Pavlyuchenko on his way to Zenit in the December transfer window?

Apparently Cristiano Ronaldo's free kick goals in Zurich were not as saveable as we initially thought. They reached 103 km/hr, or about 60 mph, and they were loaded with movement. No easy task stopping that. Keep in mind Becks, Alves and Ronaldinho average about 87 kilometers per hour, while only Robert Carlos reached between 110 and 116 kph on average.

Massimo Moratti believes Inter is stronger without Zlatan.

Sergio Ramos will likely get his chance this Sunday against Xerex. It will be interesting to test his form.

Messi will renew his contract, and again become Barca's highest paid player, today.

Reports from Barcelona indicate Atletico Madrid are fearful of another (in the long, long line of recent) blow-out in this weekend's match. As well they should be judging on form. Guardiola, meanwhile, isn't buying it and warns that Atletico may be more dangerous than ever because of their recent form. Sounds like the wounded animal logic to me. And frankly, I hope he's right and Ateltico show some gumption. If the past is any indicator though, they'll show tons of chracater in a 3-1 loss. Losers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Those Crazy Turks!

As most everyone knows by now, and as HalaMadrid noted in his roundup of Tuesday's Champions League action, points are often hard to come by away to Turkish teams, even for the big boys. Well for those lucky enough to watch or even just hear the Man U-Besiktas match, you got a lesson on great football atmosphere. Check out these videos, which confirm why Sir Alex said it was the loudest noise he'd ever heard (clearly he wasn't at the Confederations Cup and those vuvuzelas):

Full length highlights from UEFA, which I love because it cuts out all commentary and lets the crowd atmosphere be the soundtrack to the game:

And for a cool fan view, here's a four and half minute, high quality video from behind one of the goals. The shots of the entire crowd jumping and clapping and chanting are very cool. It was like this the entire game.

Man U is certainly happy to get all three points from this trip. They'll be encouraged by signs that Nani and Antonio Valencia can be dangerous, but they still can't seem to put it all together. And fortunately for the Red Devils, with Rio Ferdinand again an injury concern, Nemanja Vidic seems in fine fettle ahead of this weekend's Manchester Derby.

As for the other match I paid particular attention to, Juve missed their new talisman, Diego, against a feisty Bordeaux. In the pouring rain, the two sides were fairly even. Iaquinta actually scored, though he's still one of the more wasteful strikers on a top European team right now. I like Amauri on the other hand, but he seems to be extremely unlucky, this time being denied by a lucky reaction save by Cedric Carrasso. Although Brodeaux probably shouldn't finish top two, they will not be an easy victory for either Juve or Bayern. Gourcuff was a handfull and he forced Buffon into a few nice saves. Fortunately for the bianconeri, this season Buffon seems to have regained his form from 2006 that saw him as the top keeper in the world.

Juve will be disappointed to have dropped two points from their first home match, especially since Jaroslav Plasil was off-side when he struck his equalizer and the goal should have been disallowed. In two weeks time hopefully Juve can travel with a healthy Diego to the Allianz Arena to get a better gauge of where they stand in this tournament.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Champions League Wrap - Tuesday

The Champions League is officially underway, and it just wouldn't be the old continent's top club competition without some surprises. Actually, only one, sort of "surprise."

That, of course, was Atletico Madrid's home draw to the Cypriot and first time Champions Leaguers APOEL FC. The Vicente Calderon was at best half full due in part to the unknown opposition and in part to the Atletico faithful being engaged in an all-out war with the club's management. After promising defensive reinforcements if the club qualified for the Champions League - which never came - the club proceeded to sell starting defender Johnny Heitinga to Everton. The club, promising in the preseason mostly because they kept Aguero and Forlan, started the season off with a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Malaga, and followed that up with a drab 1-1 draw against a Racing Santander team that played most of the second half a man down. So perhaps it wasn't that surprising to see the squad prove completely ineffective over the first 45 minutes of play, allowing the Cypriots two very good chances at drawing first blood. The second half was much better, but Atletico still haven't learned that you have to play a full ninety - especially in Europe. Instead of being their own worst enemy in the last 45, Atletico ran into APOEL keeper Chiotis who basically stopped anything and everything that came his way. His final save on a Forlan cracker served only to frustrate an already downtrodden rojiblanco side. While I hope for the best for Madrid's second side, after this pathetic display they'll be lucky to slide into the Europa League much less beat out either Porto and Chelsea into the knockout rounds. So far this year Atletico has lived up to its nickname - Patetico de Madrid.

Meanwhile, Chelsea beat Porto in London 1-0 with a goal by Anelka at the start of the second half. After a solid save by Helton, Anelka grabbed his own rebound on the right side of the box and somehow, almost without an angle, glanced the ball over a sliding defender's torso and beat the keeper. That said, Porto played a solid match, and these two look to go through - at least on first impressions.

The other Madrid side, Real Madrid (perhaps you've heard of them), fared much better in Zurich. With Higuain starting at striker and Drenthe at leftback as the only changes in the starting lineup, Real came out full force against the Swiss minnows. Even with Kaka having a semi-off day, Ronaldo proved he is fast finding his form, and Drenthe is finally showing real progress on the left wing after two ineffective years. While the team is still clearly finding its way, the potent attack proved too much, with Raul (poacher's special), Ronaldo (2 free kicks), Higuain (phenomenal finish), and Guti (beautiful chip) all finding the back of the net in a 5-2 victory. At least one fantastic combination was laid to waste by Raul after an amazing combination by four players on the left wing, which proves little by little the players are gelling. On a more unfortunate note, Xabi Alonso was injured at the start of the second half. His absence was sorely missed especially since Fernando Gago looked atrocious, as usual. He was not quite as atrocious as the English referee who invented the penalty on Iker and drew yellow cards six times against Real and only two against a Zurich side that clearly aimed to kick Ronaldo and Kaka off the field from the outset. I guess since Platini's disdain for Real Madrid is so well known the refs have realized what the ticket to working the final might entail.

Nevertheless, the scoreline covers up the loss of a 3-0 lead in a feeble five minutes due to a Casillas penalty and a poorly defended corner kick. The concerns remain the same. The defense is particularly fragile on dead ball plays, the team tends to relax after building a lead, and the players haven't quite gotten to know each other. Casillas remains below his regular form, and the defense hasn't quite settled in yet. Talent and a nose for goal has obscured these concerns on the scoreline so far, but there's precious little time for Pellegrini and his troops to iron these worries out. Pepe needs to return and take control of the backline, as does Sergio Ramos - if he's back to his 2007-2008 form and not his recent middling play. It will be interesting to see if (or when) this team will achieve the balance it needs to compete against top flight competition. If you saw Ronaldo's two free kick goals, both were saveable but had just enough power or movement to go in. Real Madrid as a whole are analogous to this; they're getting it done, but in other circumstances the result might be drastically different.

Also in Group C, AC Milan takes home three points from France, beating Marseille 2-1 on two Inzaghi strikes. Who scored for Marseille you ask? Ex-Real Madrid and Manchester United man Gabriel Heinze, of course. Is Real Madrid European football? Yes, yes they are. Thanks for asking.

Elsewhere, ex-Real Madrid coach Juande Ramos started off on the wrong foot at CSKA Moscow, as his side saw defeat to Wolfsburg in Germany, 3-1. Manchester United got a valuable three points from their visit to the inferno that is playing in a Turkish stadium. These two results probably give a good idea of who will be going through as United and Wolfsburg are probably the most talented teams in the group. That said, trips to Russia and Turkey can often be grueling on teams, and no one would be surprised to see points left by the wayside.

Finally, yesterday's action saw Juventus draw with Girondins in Italy, and Bayern Munich win easily (at least on the scoreboard) in Israel. I'm sure ARF will discuss, but these results probably only affect whether Bayern or Juve go through first or second, as neither Girondins nor Maccabi look the part of spoilers.

But the real action takes place today, with Barcelona and Ibra travelling to Milan for a mouthwatering matchup with Mou, Inter, and, of course, Eto'o. I'm hoping for an Eto'o hat trick. But that's why they play the games. Enjoy!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Adebayor Ugliness Mars Man City Victory Over Arsenal

Manchester City's title hopes are up in stock this week, thanks to their 4-2 home win over Arsenal. They played some wonderful flowing football, dominating play toward the end of the match. After coming over from Arsenal during the summer, Emmanuel Adebayor particularly showed his ability on the pitch. He prevented a goal while manning the post during a corner. His beautiful flowing move left Bendtner, then Eboue, then Gallas in the dust before he slotted the ball in front to Shaun Wright-Phillips, who sadly struck the ball wide to prevent a highlight goal for the ages. He then scored soon after on a delightful header. Obviously the post-match focus was on Adebayor's wonderful play and how he let talent be the best revenge against his former club.

Or, maybe not.

Two ugly incidents have instead dominated the headlines: 1) Adebayor's stomp on Robin Van Persie's face 2) Adebayor running to the complete other side of the pitch to the Arsenal fans to celebrate his goal, prompting a near riot. In the aftermath of the match, Mark Hughes said that he hoped "that the game itself will be the shining light rather than any one incident." Not likely, Mark. In post-game remarks, Adebayor did apologize for the run across the field. So let's deal with that first. The FA Chief Executive said he was "unimpressed" with Adebayor's actions and that he would look at them. The Manchester police then had a go at Adebayor as well, saying he intentionally aggravated the crowd, leading to a steward being knocked unconscious. Perhaps if it were just the celebration the striker might get off the hook. However, the boot to his former teammate's face was an even more appalling act. Van Persie has attacked his former teammate, saying in a statement, "I am sad and disappointed by my former team-mate Emmanuel Adebayor's mindless and malicious stamp on me. He set out to hurt me and I feel lucky that I have not suffered a greater injury. The contact was only centimeters from my eye." Adebayor says it was not intentional. Mark Hughes defended Adebayor, because what else is he going to do.

The replay doesn't do the Togo striker any favors. While it is impossible to know exactly what was going on in his mind, the stomp certainly looks deliberate. The speculation is that he will be suspended for at least three games, and possibly longer than that. Frankly, three games isn't near enough. Mark Hughes has to defend his player, but none of his claims for leniency pass the laugh test. He said that other player's have celebrated similarly (and gotten suspended), that Van Persie did the same earlier after his goal (not even close), that Adebayor should be cut slack because he is an emotional player (what?), the referee had a great view and didn't issue a card for the play on Van Persie (clearly he did not), that Arsenal fans subjected their former player to a great deal of abuse (shocking), and that Adebayor was actually celebrating with the small group of City fans near the giant group of Arsenal fans (utterly preposterous). Even if those things were true, Adebayor stomped on another player's face, and appeared to do it on purpose. That's really the end of the discussion. He couldn't face a long enough suspension as far as I'm concerned.

Back to things dealing with football and not acts of thuggery, it's possible Hughes won't have Adebayor, Robinho, Tevez or Roque Santa Cruz for next week. That sounds like a good time for...a derby against Manchester United.

Speak of the Red Devils, they again showed their mettle with a 3-1 victory against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, despite the sending off of Paul Scholes in the second half. Sir Alex complained after the game and appeared to have a case, as Scholes went to ground but appeared to be trying to pull away from the challenge. United also survived a brilliant strike from Jermain Defoe to open the scoring in the first minute, with Ryan Giggs spectacularly equalizing from a free kick. Both teams had good chances, but Anderson and Rooney converted. That's why they're the champions.

A brief roundup elsewhere: Liverpool dominated Burnley, but Chelsea needed an extra time strike from Malouda to rally from behind against Stoke and remain perfect. Aston Villa continued their rally in form with a win in the Second City derby against Birmingham City, and now sit with nine points from four matches. Everton continued their dismal start with an away loss to Fulham and currently sit in the relegation zone. Not the expected start for a side that finished fifth last year.

After European play mid-week, next week's fixtures are highlighted by Liverpool on the road at West Ham, Chelsea hosting Tottenham, and of course the Manchester derby. So as you can imagine, the game ESPN is showing is Burnley-Sunderland (??). Ugh. Also this will be the third ESPN match in a row featuring Burnley. Does someone in Bristol have a cousin on that team or something? Although on the upside, I'll be a lot less annoyed during the seemingly inevitable technical difficulties during the Burnley-Sunderland match.

Monday's Free Kicks

News from all over, so I'll just pick a few random things to point out:

A pair of injuries have me a little bummed today - Jermaine Jones may need further surgery on his fractured shin, a blot to those who were hoping to see him suit up for the USA sometime this year. Juventus playmaker Diego is also out with a hamstring injury. He'll miss the Champions League opener against Bordeaux. Fortunately this injury is not as serious as was first feared, with Juve saying he'll only be out for one week. This gives young Giovinco a chance to shine again with both Diego and Del Piero out this week. Giovinco did well as Juve won for the second straight game at the Stadio Olimpico, this time beating Lazio two-nil. Felipe Melo also continues to be in good form and will be needed to match up against Bordeaux's Gourcuff.

With diving and simulation a hot topic recently, Eduardo was at it again, this time going to ground against the New England Revolution. Shockingly, Eduardo Lillinston is Mexican, and who'd think that a Mexican footballer would do such an unsporting thing during a game? Some are arguing that he should be suspended, and I wouldn't be against MLS following UEFA's lead and suspending players found guilty of blatant simulation. On the other hand... Arsenal forward Eduardo had his two game ban rescinded by none other than UEFA. Way to stick to your guns.

As a fan of DC United, I came away bitter this weekend after another home loss to Seattle despite DC owning possession the entire game, only to be foiled by the profligacy of the slowest striker pairing in MLS (the currently useless Luciano Emilio, and the useful-as-a-setup-man Jamie Moreno) and Fred's rapid descent into worst player in the league territory. Additionally, Danny Szetela continues to sit on the bench for apparently being a worse practice player than I can really conceive of. So much for his chances of returning to the national team picture.

If you're a US Men's National Team fan you'll be happy to learn that your TV viewership isn't worth much. The Honduran federation has sold the rights for US-Honduras in the United States to a company no one has heard of, who plans on televising the game on closed circuit tv. Apparently they think it's the 1970s and we're watching Ali-Frazier. There's a chance the game will be shown on tape delay. Of course, it's not like it will be impossible to find an internet feed - that's never the case - or you can just find your local pub - Lucky Bar to the rescue!

On the even more ridiculous side, Diego Forlan has revealed he was sold by Manchester United for defying Alex Ferguson regarding the length of his studs on his boots! Let it be known that you cannot challenge Sir Alex when it comes to boots, whether it's your choice of molded studs over replaceables or if the gaffer merely kicks the boot into your face at halftime. Of course his departure had nothing to do with taking 8 months to score his first goal or his paltry overall strike record.

Back to meaningful games, the Champions League group stage is about to begin, and while some big time match-ups are on the way, there will be a quite a few comfortable wins for the big boys against the minnows, and at least one observer thinks the Champions League may becoming the new Carling Cup, providing easy wins and predictability for the EPL's big four.

AC Milan could spring a big surprise in the UCL by showing up sans Ronaldinho. As if it can't be repeated enough, by the club's lofty standards Milan look pathetic this year and Ronny hasn't exactly recaptured his old magic. Is Leonardo really ready to drop him from the Champions League squad? US fans probably won't be happy at the sight of Oguchi on the bench next to the buck toothed one, but he hasn't forced himself onto the field yet, not a good sign prior to the big qualifiers coming in October.

And we couldn't leave out at least one bit of transfer news, with Celtic eyeing Tottenham striker Robbie Keane for a January transfer.

Friday, September 11, 2009

News and Reading Before the Weekend

The international break is over and we'll soon be back with all your favorite European Leagues (and well how about that, the MLS never stopped! Two DC United games simultaneous with two USA World Cup qualifiers in one week, wonder which games I watched).

A lot is being made of Argentina's precarious qualifying position, well the Telegraph chimes in on the Maradona comedy roadshow. The picture alone is enough to make you laugh, and then cry when you realize this is one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. ESPNsoccernet follows suit. Of course, HalaMadrid was leading the way prior to Wednesday's matches, examining the many reasons Argentina is doing so poorly. However, the Guardian takes a different approach to examining the Argentina mess, noting that the Argentina Football Association and the Argentine press have created such a poor working situation that every major coaching candidate has stated that they want no part in the job, so firing Maradona could actually make the current mess a full blown disaster.

Of course Argentina isn't the only team struggling right now, with a few big guns in Europe also in danger. One squad is France, who actually played well in managing a 1-1 draw at Serbia while a man down, yet still looks likely to find themselves in a second place playoff spot rather than an automatic qualifier. Apparently what's happening is that Thierry Henry is staging a coup and taking over the team from puppet coach Raymond Domenech, much the way Zinadine Zidane also apparently did in 2006 when he inspired that aging team to the World Cup final.

Now on to the club stuff. HalaMadrid is expecting big things from this latest version of Madrid's galacticos, but one madridista finds much to be worried about, seeing through the rose colored glasses and the blinding light shining off the perfectly gelled coif of #9.

Don't fret though, you can now ridicule Barcelona for the absurdity of signing 7-year old future wonder adolescent Kais from Lyon. I don't have much else to say about this one.

Finally, this may be in Italian, but supposedly it says that Juventus may be preparing to swoop in for Benedict "Giuseppe Rossi" Arnold. I know this because confirms it. That's real journalism right there. Anyway, Rossi, who has expressed a desire to return to Italy, has been linked with Juve in the past, and Rossi didn't do much to quelle those rumours other than saying he has a contract with Villareal. With Trezeguet set to leave after the season, and Del Piero on his last legs, this would be a good signing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Questions than Answers for the USA

Working back to front, I have a few observations I want to throw out there after the USA beat Trinidad, all but putting them into the World Cup - and let's face it, even against Honduras and Costa Rica if the US can't get the necessary results with the World Cup on the line, well then heads ought to roll.

I think we can all agree Tim Howard is the man. Done.

Seeing Oguchi was a welcome return to the lineup. He was in the midst of a rich vein of form near the end of last season through this summer. He did what he needed to on Wed, though he wasn't spectacular. However, there was a return of the "he's much bigger than everyone else so it must be a foul" type of calls, something that had been cut out recently as he was learning to do things more smoothly. Let's hope he finds playing time with AC Milan. Unfortunately, Carlos Bocanegra did not look good at all. So if you had to name the starting central defensive pair, who would it be? I'm not sure who Gooch's partner would be - Bocanegra or DeMerit?

After banishing him from the national team in my mind, Jonathan Bornstein responded with one of his better defensive displays. My brother thinks that his value is in his consistency, to which I replied that my brother must be crazy. But his argument is still that you really know what to expect from Bornstein - you can't possibly play him against world class players, but against lower level opponents his relative quickness and skill allows him to be a suitable defender. I'm still not entirely sure I agree, but his theory is out there. Still, come the World Cup we agree he shouldn't play, but who should? Boca or Edgar Castillo, or someone as yet to be determined?

Of course, I previously said that Michael Bradley is very much the same way as my brother described Bornstein - you know what you're getting from him, though Bradley has a much much better upside when he has a great game. Neither Bradley nor Ricardo Clark thrilled me last night, but Clark of course salvaged the game. To me the key play that hasn't been mentioned wasn't actually Dempsey's hold up play or Donovan's cut back, it was Clark's first touch flicking the ball and setting up his shot. Donovan's pass was actually not that great - it didn't lead Clark and forced him to make a more difficult touch. The fact that Clark made the play is a credit to his skill. I said he doesn't offer as much going forward, which is true generally because Clark is not going to be unlocking defenses with his passing and pushing forward the way Donovan or Feilhaber can. However, Clark is pretty rangy and has always shown a good shot, so he certainly isn't bereft of attacking ability. Bradley also will never wow you with his passing vision, but he also can cover a lot of ground, usually makes the right play and has good timing with his runs into the box in support of attacking forays. Still, this area of the field remains a mystery. Can all the US center mids get healthy please?

I absolutely agree with bzimzim when he argues that Clint Dempsey should lose his place in the starting lineup after his past few performances. It's difficult because he keeps playing like crap, misses chances, but somehow scores a goal or gets involved with an assist. I agree he should be replaced, and his spot should be taken by one of the trio of Holden, Feilhaber, or Torres (can anyone get a read on Bob Bradley's intentions with this kid??). There's some time ahead of the final pair of games for players to make their case and for injuries to help or hurt the situation. Still, with every passing game I get more confused as to who I want to see starting in the midfield. I think right now with only the healthy players, I'd like Donovan-Clark-Feilhaber-Holden. Only I'm wary that Holden is best used as an energy sub. And when Dempsey is healthy and on form, it's hard to leave him out, but of course he's not on form... Ok, so Bob Bradley's job isn't that easy. Still, I think I could do much better with team tactics than he.

At forward, let's hope Bradley finally realized that no matter what, Altidore-Davies is the only true forward tandem that works. Davies had an off game, in particular his touch was very poor, but he still needs to start.

Coming soon... an update on the USA Player Power Rankings!