Monthly Archives: April 2010

Race against time for Dutch

Hadi Zogheib

Take a quick glance at the World Cup qualification tables from the European zone and the record of the Netherlands in Group 9 immediately jumps out. Eight wins, no losses, not even a draw. Seventeen goals for and only two against. Not too shabby, eh? With just weeks to go before kickoff in South Africa, it’s easy to see why the Dutch have powered up to number four in the world rankings, behind only European champions Spain, five-time world champions Brazil and, curiously, Portugal. 

But not everything is looking rosy for the Oranje, especially if you look at the struggles of their wonderful attacking talent. In recent months, many of the players Holland will rely on to lift the trophy in Johannesburg have been struggling for form, fitness or both. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has barely seen first team action for AC Milan. Dirk Kuyt has had a season to forget with Liverpool. Robin Van Persie has only just recovered from a horrific injury in a friendly versus Italy and will be short of match fitness come June. And Rafael Van der Vaart just damaged his left thigh muscle in Real Madrid’s match at Zaragoza on Saturday.

Adding to Holland’s woes, midfielder Wesley Sneijder looked anything but match fit in this week’s Champions League semi-final battle with Barcelona, having to be substituted early in the second half after a largely ineffective performance in the first 45 minutes.

The only good news for the Dutch is that time is on their side. All the above players still have time to heal and improve their fitness before the World Cup commences. In the meantime, Dutch football fans are holding their breath and hoping for the best.

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Prize acquisition, or prize pig?

He’s won wherever he’s gone, but he’s alienated plenty of people with his egotistical attitude at every turn. Now it seems Jose Mourinho, who has Inter Milan on the brink of a treble of titles, is about to bolt Italy this summer. Could he wind up at Real Madrid, or back in the Premier League? Check out Ian Harrison’s column at Toro Magazine for the full story…

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Love for Sale: Burnley

We now know who will join Portsmouth in relegation. Hull City’s loss to Sunderland and Burnley’s drubbing by Liverpool — combined with West Ham’s dramatic 3-2 win over Wigan — means that Hull and Burnley are done.

Burnley

They were the Little Team That Could. Burnley finished sixth in the Championship last year and then dispatched both Reading and Sheffield United to win promotion.  They started their Premier League season in style — beating three-time defending champions Manchester United in a famous win at Turf Moor.  But they only won once after October and then their manager jumped ship to Bolton.  Burnley’s Premiership experiment was over.  But the following players showed their mettle and should get snapped up by other outfits.

Steven Fletcher: Burnley broke their transfer record when they paid Hibs 3 million pounds for this Scotland international. Fletcher led the team in goals and has already been linked to former Scotland manager Alex McLeish at Birmingham — and to his old boss, Owen Coyle, at Bolton.

Graham Alexander: Another Englishman-turned-Jock, Alexander spent 16 years in the lower leagues before getting promoted with Burnley. A former right-back turned defensive midfielder, Alexander scored seven goals this year — although to be fair, four were penalties. Burnley’s Ironman could get find life at another Prem outfit, if only to bring some experience to the bootroom.

Wade Elliott: Burnley’s reigning player of the year, Elliott is a speedy winger who can do wonderful things with his right foot (see here and here).  He gets stuck in, gives his team some width and can create goalscoring opportunities. In fact, this writer thinks Don Fabio would be better off with Elliott in South Africa than a three-initialed dunce who can’t see over the counter at the hotel.

Tyrone Mears: Sometimes good players have bad karma.  This is the second time Mears’ team has gotten relegated: he was a member of that dreadful Derby County team in 2008. And although he’s English, he mistakenly thought his family was from Jamaica. He ended up playing one for the Reggae Boyz — making him uneligible for the Three Lions — until the right back found out his family came from Sierra Leone.  Too bad — because deputies for the oft-injured Glen Johnson are far and few between.  Mears was a bright spot on the Premier League’s most porous defence and he should get another crack at top-flight football.

Chris Eagles: He’s been called the next David Beckham and was a United player for eight years before joining the Clarets. Eagles wasn’t a regular starter this season. But at 24 years old, he’s still attracting interest from some of the bigger clubs.  The best days may still be yet to come for this attacking midfielder.

Brian Jensen: This old Dane surprised many observers early on, providing heroics for the aforementioned victory over United — as well as helping those fantasy league owners who bought Jensen on the cheap. “The Beast” was a perpetual second-stringer for years and only got a regular gig after joining Burnley. He is their longest-serving player but could be pried away by a team who needs a quality keeper aka Wolves, Wigan or even Sunderland.

David Nugent: Actually, Nugent is not a Burnley player. He belongs to Portsmouth but they need to sell, sell, sell to pay Her Majesty’s government. Nugent was famously capped for England as a Preston North End player, scoring a 90th minute goal against Andorra. He is a boyhood Evertonian — and the Toffees could use another striker to take the pressure off the perpetually-injured Louis Saha.

Final look: Hull City

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Love For Sale: Portsmouth

With three weeks left in the season, the relegation battle is a little clearer. Portsmouth are gone, Hull City and Burnley are on their way (thanks for visiting!) and big teams like either West Ham and Wolves could lose their spot to Newcastle and West Brom (Welcome back! We hardly missed ya!).

The teams that drop can’t expect to keep all of their players. At The Rails will look at the teams that have been relegated — or are in danger of the drop — and who we think could jump ship.

Portsmouth

Poor old Pompey. Never really had a shot, did they? Their revolving door of owners and managers finally caught up with them.  From their FA Cup-winning season on, the debts mounted — they even owe money to the milkman — and the League imposed administration, effectively relegating the last bastion of South Coast football from the Premier League.

Most of Portsmouth’s highest paid players were shed at the beginning of the season, with the boardroom electing to bring others in on loan.  That means Freddie Piquoinne and Aruna Dindane will almost certainly return to France (Lyon and Lens, respectively) in May and Jamie O’Hara will resume his role as Tottenham’s Young Player of the Year.

But others will be sold off: some will leave to drop the wage bill, some will go to a team that actually pays the players… and some will leave because the FA Cup finalists will be a shadow of what they once were and players won’t relish another relegation battle.  Let’s have a look at possible pickups for the other Prem outfits:

Kevin-Prince Boateng: This Ghanian international will have to be on the block this summer, as Portsmouth still owe 3 million pounds to Spurs for the hard central midfielder.  Boateng will showcase his stuff for the Black Stars in South Africa this summer, where he will face off against brother Jerome (who plays for ze Germans). Jerome has been linked with Manchester City but Kevin-Prince may have to look a little lower down the table.  The elder Boateng would be a good fit for Steve Bruce’s Sunderland.

Steve Finnan: The ultimate journeyman, the Irish RB is the only player to play in the World Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup, all four levels of English football, as well as the Conference. Although a bit long in the tooth, he recently came out of retirement to join Giovanni Trappatoni’s Ireland squad and may have another Euro left in him. Reliable and experienced, Finnan is out of contract come July.

Aaron Mokoena: The captain of South Africa’s squad, Mokoena’s fate may depend on how well the Bafana Bafana does in front of the home crowd. The hard-tackling midfielder (his nickname is ‘The Ax’) is nursing a lingering groin injury.  But after his sterling performance in the FA Cup semi, Prem teams will likely not care that his mum used to dress him up as a girl.

Nadir Belhadj: Another one of Pompey’s better-than-average players currently on the injured list, Belhadj was brought over from Ligue One for 4.4 million pounds. A Dubai-based law firm said they are still owed fees for helping that transfer along.  Belhadj is in a race to get fit in time for Algeria’s World Cup debut against Slovenia.  But games against England and the U.S. may give the defender a chance to shine.

David James: He’s old, he’s a bit of a tw@t…. and he’s prone to huge lapses in concentration.  But even after Portsmouth sink further and further, Calamity James will still call the Premiership home. Why? Because England’s national team can’t afford to lose him to the lower leagues.  He’s 40 years old but he’s still best goalkeeper in all of Albion — on his day. His record of most Premier League clean sheets is more a testament to his longevity.  But there are teams that could do worse than the man from Welwyn.  Besides, who else will set Glen Johnson’s corn rows?

Up Next: Burnley

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The Lyon merry-go-round

Hadi Zogheib

It is understood, in Europe, that the great players desire to play in the great leagues. This allows players to showcase their talents to a larger audience and enables them to reap the benefits of larger financial contracts and endorsements. Manchester United? Sure. Barcelona and Real Madrid? Obviously. Inter or Juve? Absolutely. Lyon? Er. Maybe for a while, but then…


Which is what makes Lyon’s staying power all the more impressive. They churn out talent – but it rarely sticks around. Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Mahamadou Diarra, Gregory Coupet, Tiago, Eric Abidal, John Carew, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa. They’ve all been there and had a hand in at least one of the five consecutive Ligue 1 titles Lyon boasts. And, inevitably, they’ve all left. Who wants to stick around when Chelsea, Real and Juve come calling?

It is understood that others will soon leave as well. Hugo Lloris is one of the top rated goalkeepers in Europe. Lisandro Lopez may be the next Diego Milito, looked over by the big clubs until late in his career. And the list of suitors for Aly Cissokho is too long to mention.

But until they leave, there is some unfinished business for the club. For all its domestic success, Lyon have had very little to cheer about in the Champions League. That’s all changed this year under manager Claude Puel. Down only 1-0 to Bayern after the away leg, Lyon has never had a better chance to get to the final of Europe’s biggest football stage. Wait, I thought you had to leave Lyon to go deep in the Champions League. Just ask Essien, Malouda or Benzema. Oh right, their teams have already been eliminated.

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50 days till kickoff! Get your flag out and start wavin’!

If you haven’t seen this great World Cup preview video featuring the song ‘Wavin’ Flag’ by Somali-Canadian hip hop artist K’Naan, check it out. It’s sure to get you psyched for a summer of soccer. Enjoy!!

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Time to rewrite Serie A obituary

Hadi Zogheib

It seems the death of the Serie A has been greatly exaggerated. Just four years ago the top flight of Italian football was mired in a match fixing scandal, the Calciopoli, one that threatened the viability and reputation of the league’s very future. And even though it served as a rallying cry for the Italian national team, who so admirably put the scandal behind them and played their way to a fourth FIFA World Cup crown in Germany that summer, the fallout in the Serie A itself was difficult to ignore.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

In the three years following, the Serie A bore witness to one calamity after another, all of which threatened to label Italian football as a “has been” league. Having Juventus stripped of its 2006 title was just the beginning. Rapidly declining attendance throughout the league soon followed. Italian clubs began finding it difficult to lure bright, young talent, as many starlets opted to play in Spain or England instead. Serie A was quickly garnering a reputation as a league for world stars whose skills were on the decline. There was no Messi, no Ronaldo, no Rooney. Instead, fans watched an aging Beckham, an overweight Ronadinho, and the volatile Adriano.

The once feared European giants of Inter, AC Milan, and Roma couldn’t get a sniff of late round Champions League play in the years following the 2006 World Cup. Time and again they found themselves a step behind Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lyon and Bayern. Worst of all, the league is on the verge of losing a Champions League berth to the Bundisliga. (Serie A currently has four Champions League spots compared to three for the German league).

This year, amid the doom and gloom, something changed and Serie A found its feet again. It’s hard to put your finger on one event that caused the turnaround. Maybe it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager of Inter. Perhaps it was the the rebirth of Juventus through crafty management, or the ability of the lesser teams to scout talent from under the noses of the Spanish or English giants. All of a sudden the Serie A is the place to be once again. Attendance is up in many stadiums. Young stars such as Marek Hamsik, Mario Balotelli, and Javier Pasatore are lighting up YouTube. The league is the most competitive it has been in years, with 10 teams vying for the fourth Champions League place, separated by just eleven points. At the top, there’s a thrilling title race between the three time champions Inter and Roma, who carry one of Europe’s longest domestic unbeaten streaks at 22 matches.

And Italian teams are once again being noticed in Europe. Fiorentina eliminated Liverpool from its Champions League group. AC Milan waltzed into the Bernabeau and handed Real Madrid a rare home loss. And Mourinho’s Inter salvaged Italian pride by marching Inter into the semi-finals of the Champions League, allowing the Serie A to retain its four qualifying places, at least for one more season. Yes, 2010 has been quite a year in Italy.  And with another World Cup just two months away, other nations are no doubt sweating.



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