Monthly Archives: November 2010

Fear and Loathing in La Liga

They call it El Clasico. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.  A literal Clash of the Titans.

It was Version 20-10, Round One, The Nou Camp. Actually, for us, the actual locale was Scallywag’s in midtown Toronto. But it was a memorable afternoon, in that Ian and I got to drink pints and watch a stunning rivalry, all the while texting and taunting Kev and Len — two other ATR contributors — because they had to work.  But on the pitch, only one team showed classic form… and the other failed to live up to its superstar credentials.

The media build-up to the game was epic.  Thirteen World champions were facing off, along with the two greatest players in the world at the moment: Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi.  Both acted according to type: Messi was a genius (although he failed to score) and Ronaldo once again threw all his toys out the pram.

Let’s just get down to it. Final score: 5-0.  After a build-up of rhetoric — mostly from the evil genius, Jose Mourinho — the game was nothing short of a blood bath and an embarrassment for Real Madrid. Barcelona tore their rivals apart and left them bent — and possibly broken. Real had gone into this game undefeated but now they sit second, humiliated by their rivals. Nothing but sour grapes for the arrogant side of the Spanish capital.

Everyone talks of how Messi is the best player in the world, but Xavi Hernandez is the best playmaker on the planet… and he proved it with a lucky, flukey goal that looked like he was giving a camp course.  The midfielder took a pass off his back heel, flick it up his over his shoulder, and onto the toe of his boot. Some fortunate physics may have been involved but  it was a massive, massive 1-nil.

Xavi: The “Real” Special One…

From then on, it was all Barcelona.  And regardless of  their club stripe, all Spaniards will take small consolation that Xavi — along with teammate David Villa — embarrassed the national goalkeeper, Iker Casillas.

But none of it was as embarrassing as Ray Hudson’s colour commentary on Gol TV.  Sounding like someone who forgot to take his Ritalin, the Geordie was over the top on every single play, making inappropriate and/or nonsensical references. Examples:

On Victor Valdes: “He looks like Mussolini looking over the balcony…” Nice… comparing the Barca keeper to the second-most infamous Fascist in history.

On David Silva: “He’s on fire… He looks like a Peregrine Falcon.” Um… I believe you are referring to the phoenix, which is born out of a fiery demise. Peregrine Falcons are known as fetchers for their master.  Perhaps you can get one to find you the definition of mixed metaphors…

On Lionel Messi: “He’s the world’s best player… on account of his powerful little legs.”

Scintillating analysis….

Back to La Liga.  Like it or not, Mourinho has finally lost, a defeat that he is  calling the worst of his career.  More importanly, the landscape has changed on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Catalans walking as softly as their gaffer, but carrying a big stick.  All the while, Madrid will look back at a performance where they began as Los Merengues… but ended as lemons.

Ole…

Brent P. Lanthier

Only it wasn’t supposed to end up like this. Madridistas around the world were so sure their team was finally up to the challenge of beating Barcelona. They had the players. They had the manager. They had the confidence of being unbeaten all year.

But, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. The end result was a thrashing of historic proportions, handing Jose Mourinho the worst defeat of his managerial career. The new boys of Real were supposed to make the difference. Angel Di Maria, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, and Ricardo Carvalho were playing scintillating football all season. The blistering Madrid counterattack was touted by pundits as the key to unlocking the slower Barcelona defence. But, the newbies seemed absolutely overawed by the occasion.

Instead it was Barcelona who were majestic. Over six hundred completed passes in the match. Six hundred!! That’s how you play, baby. Forget Messi vs. Ronaldo. Ronaldo has a long way to go to play up to the standards of Xavi and Iniesta, let alone Leo Messi. This was team football at it’s finest. The mesmerizing movement of the blaugrana showed the world that years of playing as a unit trumps any amount of bought talent. Sure Barcelona has some big name buys too (David Villa, Dani Alves, etc.), but it was the interplay between Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Messi that unlocked the toughest defence in La Liga.

It may only be one game and there’s still a long way to go in the season. But it’s clear for all to see that Real Madrid has a long way to go if it is to be considered Barcelona’s equal. For those of us who had the privilege of witnessing the game, it was one we will not soon forget.

Hadi Zogheib

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MLS Cup Runneth Colder

The MLS Cup fittingly came to an end on Sunday night with an own goal in the 107th minute. Most of the announced crowd of 21,700 had smartly exited the building as the game went into extra time. The first 15 minutes of that extra time were probably the worst soccer played at BMO Field; hence the mass exodus. But Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith was happy with the win… even if wasn’t, as he put it, “the best game for viewing”.

Standing on the sideline on a cold and windy night, watching two teams most fans would never have cared to see if they weren’t forced to buy tickets, I thought of MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s pre-game press conference. One of the points he made was that the league is looking into altering its schedule to align itself with the international calendar. That means playing through the winter. Even with a break through the coldest months, it’s still not good news for sideline reporting.

Toronto FC might get another break as the league looks to expanding playoff teams from 8 to 10, with the inception of the Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers next season.

I’ll give credit to the Toronto faithful who more or less filled the stadium, and withstood the cold breeze late on a Sunday night, the game ended just after 11 p.m. Singing in the 23rd minute to honour TFC’s first-ever goal by Danny Dichio was a nice touch. The loudest ovation was reserved for former Toronto midfielder Marvel Wynne; the loudest jeer was fittingly reserved for another former player, Jeff Cunningham.

Those who did stay until the bitter end saw a fantastic finish. Dallas pressed for the equalizer but were thwarted by Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens when he dove to his right on a reflex save, essentially winning the game for the Rapids.

Well, it IS coloured grey...

All in all, Toronto did well as hosts for the finals. From the Mounties bringing in the Phillip F. Anschutz Cup to a boisterous rendition of the Canadian national anthem by the fans… I’d call it a success… and it didn’t rain.

TFC Notes
With two expansion teams coming into the league next seasons, teams had to protect 11 players on their rosters. Here are the players TFC has left unprotected for the expansion draft:

Chad Barrett, Julian de Guzman, Gabe Gala, Nick Garcia, Raivis Hscanovics, Fuad Ibrahim, Milos Kocic, Mista, Joseph Nane, Amadou Sanyang, Martin Saric, Maxim Usanov, O’Brian White

Len Grammenopoulos

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Ewe’s yer new girlfriend?

The Scottish Full Monty

Now and then, a story comes across our desks that shows an ingenious example of business acumen… a so-called “outside-the-box” idea.

This is not one of them.

Scottish First Division team Dundee FC is struggling financially, having run up a 425-thousand pound tax bill.  The league has deducted 25 points for going into administration for the second time in seven years.  So the players’ WAGs decided to raise money by doing a “sexy” calendar.

I’m sure this sort of thing is tittillating north of Hadrian’s Wall.  To be honest, I would rather have seen the actual players in fancy lingerie.   But as the Scottish like to say, chacun son gout.  Actually, they don’t say that… but that’s what the burrrrrr sounds like to me…

BPL

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MLS ponders schedule switch

I’m at the MLS Cup in Toronto, covering the game for the Associated Press. We got some news from The Don of MLS, aka Commissioner Don Garber, before the match. Here’s what he had to say:

Major League Soccer will add two playoff teams next season, expanding its postseason field to 10, and will investigate switching its schedule to align with the international calendar.

Commissioner Don Garber made the announcement at Sunday’s 15th MLS Cup game in Toronto between the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas.

Next year’s playoff format has yet to be determined, Garber said, but the goal is to avoid a repeat of this season, when two Western Conference teams (Colorado and San Jose) met in the Eastern Conference championship. Six of the eight playoff qualifiers this year came from the West.

The league will grow to 18 teams next season when expansion franchises in Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, Canada, begin play. The season will increase from 30 to 34 games and teams will play a balanced schedule with the same number of games against each opponent.

The addition of two western teams will require moving one existing team from the Western Conference into the East. Garber said no final decision has been reached on who that will be.

A 19th team, Montreal, is set to join the league in 2012.

Aligning with the international calendar would help avoid MLS teams losing players to national team duty during breaks for World Cup qualifiers and other exhibition matches. The league suspended play for two weeks during the group stage of last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

Garber offered few details about how MLS, whose season currently runs from March to November, could better match the global schedule, which typically runs from August to April.

“It’s way too premature for us to go into any details of what it could look like,” Garber said. “What we’re basically saying is we’re going to do the research. We’re going to do a study, we’re going to take the time to get it right. There’s no rushing.

“The bottom line is we’re telling the world we’re going to begin taking a very serious look at this whole issue and what kinds of things we need to do to determine if it makes sense for us.”

With so many teams in northern climates, Garber conceded a winter break would be necessary to avoid playing games in frigid, snowy conditions. He said Sunday’s final, one degree warmer than the coldest final in league history, was “a pretty good test” for playing later into the fall.

Ian Harrison

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From Watford to the Whitecaps

Exciting news out of Vancouver, where the Whitecaps have made American defender Jay Demerit their first MLS signing.

Demerit, if you don’t know his incredible story, is the guy who went undrafted by the MLS out of college, went over the England to find a place to team, played with a non-league outfit on Saturdays and in a pub league on Sundays before landing a trial with Watford FC, then scoring the goal that clinched their promotion to the Premier League.

Demerit played in every US game at the World Cup but was out of contract with Watford when Vancouver came calling with a contract offer. He will not be a designated player.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi euphemistically said DeMerit is the type of “aggressive defender” his nascent squad needs to compete. That strategy might have worked well in Toronto, where it took far too long to come up with the capable pairing of Nana Attakora and Adrian Cann (although naming Cann team MVP over Dwayne DeRosario is still indefensible).

Ian Harrison

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Toronto’s Cup runneth over


Our Ian actually has some real jobs… including writing for Toro Magazine.  Here’s what he says about this weekend’s MLS Cup final in Toronto, and how North American soccer is coming into it’s own: MLS Cup Heads North

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England’s Rank Performance

English Tears for Years?

Their golden generation couldn’t do it. And the stable of up-and-comers seemed like down-and-outers.  With so many “superstars” injured, Don Fabio opted for a ragtag band of old and new as England took on France, a team that is basically following the same philosophy, as it rebuilds after imploding at the World Cup.  But it was Laurent Blanc’s program that seemed to work. France bossed the Three Lions and won 2-1.

I’ve often taken exception with England managers picking teams because of the crest on their club shirts instead of their form.  Capello claimed he would chose players for the latter… but it always seemed that he just adheres to the same old faces.

Then I saw this article in the Guardian.  According to the analysts at football stats crunchers Opta, Capello is close to the money in his choices.

Here’s the Opta line-up (assuming a 4-4-2):

GK: Ben Foster (Birmingham City); Joe Hart (Manchester City)

LB: Ashley Cole (Chelsea); Leighton Baines (Everton)
CBs: John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United); Phil Jagielka (Everton), Gary Cahill (Bolton)
RB: Luke Young (Aston Villa); Micah Richards (Manchester City)

LM: James Milner (Manchester City); Stewart Downing (Aston Villa)
CMs: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United); Paul Scholes (Manchester United), Scott Parker (West Ham United)
RM: Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa); Joey Barton (Newcastle United) (?!?)

Forwards: Andy Carrol (Newcastle United), Danny Welbeck (Sunderland); Darren Bent (Sunderland), Luke Varney (Blackpool)

Young and Scholes are retired… but almost everyone else has been picked by Capello in the last year or so. Compare this list with the popular Actim Index:

GK: Hart; Foster

LB: Cole, Liam Ridgwell (Birmingham City)
CBs: Terry, Scott Dann (Birmingham City); Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Roger Johnson (Birmingham City)
RB: No English RBs listed in Top 100

LM: Downing; Ashley Young (Aston Villa)
CMs: Nolan, Gerrard; Scholes, Gareth Barry (Manchester City)
RM: Albrighton, Barton (again, not sure if he really is on the right but let’s keep it even)

Forwards: Carroll, Kevin Davies (Bolton Wanderers); Peter Crouch (Tottenham Hotspur).  There were only three English forwards in the Top 100.

The most noticeable differences in the two line-ups were in defence.  But the Actim Index is telling. Is the same-old-same-old of Terry/Ferdinand working? What about picking members of a Birmingham defence that was almost impenetrable at St. Andrews?

The Actim doesn’t think much of English goalkeepers. Not that there are that many of them: picking a third keeper using Actim is an issue (Gilks? Robinson?). That — and the lack of rankings for right back and forward — should come as no surprise to regular watchers of the side.  All of these areas have been problems over the last five years.

The thing that sticks out the most in both lists is the actual ranking of English players compared to foreigners.  Simply put, the England players are outclassed.  Big money in the Premier Leagues — and big price tag for Englanders — has led clubs to look elsewhere.  Not only are they buying foreign superstars, but teams are buying young prospects from overseas… most of whom don’t bring big attitudes, big posses… and big problems (Ladism, Alcoholism… name your -ism).

It remains to be seen if new homegrown rules for both UEFA and the Prem will help or hurt England’s development.  But in the meantime, it could be slim pickings for whatever man assumes the mantle of manager.

Brent Lanthier

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The Middling Midlands

Coventry ended its punchline status in 1987

Midlands teams haven’t had much to sing about lately.  They don’t have the glitz and glamour of clubs from Swinging London and they don’t have the pedigree of the Northern teams.  The teams from England’s soft creamy middle have almost made a habit of being also-rans. 

There are exceptions, of course.  Brian Clough took little Derby County and won the league with them in 1972.  He would outdo himself at the end of the decade, taking local rivals Nottingham Forest to the League title… and then on to two consecutive European Championships.  Aston Villa then followed with  League and European wins in 1981 and 1982, respectively.  But since then, there has been a distinct lack of silverware… unless you count the League Cup… which I don’t. 

In fact, in the last 50 years, a Midlands team has only won the league four times, and the FA Cup three times.

Here’s the current breakdown of the nine major teams:

Aston Villa (currently 8th)
The biggest of the Midland clubs,  Villa appears to still be in turmoil, months after Martin O’Neill left the club over a disagreement with owner Randy Lerner over transfer funding. They have finished 6th the last three seasons, qualifying for the UEFA Cup each time.

But O’Neill was right: the squad is small and injuries have devastated the side that Gerard Houllier now helms. A string of recent draws and near-misses show that this young team gets tired easy and are prone to taking their foot off the gas.

Trophy Case: 7 Titles, 7 FA Cups, 1 European Championship, 5 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 2000 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 League Cup final

League Cup: It kind of looks like Mickey Mouse...

Stoke City (currently 10th)
Now entering its third season in the Prem, the league’s second-oldest club is hanging in there by playing tight defensive football.  In fact, last season was their best finish in 30 years.  No one expects the former club of Sir Stanley Matthews to do much except survive.

Trophy Case: 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1972 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 FA Cup Quarterfinals

West Bromwich Albion (currently in 12th)
Like many of the Midlands teams, the Baggies’ best years are behind them. They used to be the darlings of the FA Cup, with five… as many as Everton and more than Manchester City.  But they’ve become a yo-yo club, having been relegated three times in the last seven seasons.  They have taken some impressive scalps this year: a draw at Old Trafford and a win away to Arsenal.  Those are a far cry from their opening game: a 6-0 loss to Chelsea.

Trophy Case: 1 League Title, 5 FA Cups, 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1968 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2008 FA Cup Semi-Finals

Birmingham City (currently in 18th)
The second team in the Second City, Birmingham are not the most glamourous club. Although they had their best finish in over 50 years last season, the same old Brum seems to be coming out. The Blues sit in the relegation zone, and will need to get over their confounded habit of drawing games to pull themselves up.

Trophy Case: 1 League Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1963 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2010 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Wolverhampton Wanderers (currently in 19th)
Mick McCarthy’s side is a far cry from the mighty Wolves teams of the 1950’s, that finished in the top 3 in eight of nine seasons. They barely survived relegation last season, and look destined to drop in May.  They can’t score and they can’t defend. ‘Nuff said.

Trophy Case: 3 League titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 1980 League Cup
Last Time in Contention:  2003 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Derby County (currently 4th – Championship)
The team that Cloughie built has since gone through tough times. They were relegated from the Premier League in March 2008, after only one season. It was the earliest ever relegation from the Prem, with the lowest-ever points total (15), and the Rams equalled Loughborough’s 108-year-old record of only one win in a season. But so far, they are scoring in an extremely crowded Championship. Let’s see if they can sustain it until the playoffs.

Trophy Case: 2 League Titles, 1 FA Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1975 League Champions
Last Time in Contention: 2009 League Cup Semi-Finals

Nottingham Forest (currently in 10th – Championship)
The other side in the Brian Clough derby, Forest have perhaps fallen the farthest.  The two-time European Champions were relegated in the Premier League’s inaugural season, bounced back up the next year, finished third the following season, and then dropped two years later.  They would make a final appearance in the top flight again in 1998-1999, but went into free fall after that.  They lost their playoff tie last season to Blackpool, who are now scrapping with the big boys.

Trophy Case: 1 League Title, 2 European Championships, 2 FA Cups, 4 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 1990 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 1996 UEFA Cup Quarterfinals, 1996 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Coventry City (currently 11th – Championship)
Before they were relegated a decade ago, Cov spent 34 straight seasons in England’s first division.  It wasn’t always pretty but they found a way to stay up.  They even found a way to win the 1987 FA Cup, ending their legacy as the punchline of a Monty Python bit. That trophy is the last major title won by a Midlands team.

Since their drop, they’ve kept to the same formula in the Championship: not good enough to go up, not terrible enough to go down, just enough to stay in the middle. It’s kind of like Goldilocks, frankly.

Trophy Case: 1 FA Cup
Last Trophy Won: 1987 FA Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2009 FA Cup Quarterfinals

Leicester City (currently in 15th – Championship)
At the turn of the millenium, Leicester kept themselves in the top half of the Premier League table, won a couple of League Cups, and made brief appearances in the UEFA Cup.  But then they started to yo-yo more than West Brom, and even spent a season in League One.  Last season, they lost their playoff tie with Cardiff on penalties. This year, they started poorly, winning only one of their first nine games.  But they seem to have experienced a bit of resurgence under Sven-Goren Eriksson.

Trophy Case: 3 League Cups
Last Trophy Won: 2000 League Cup
Last Time in Contention: 2005 FA Cup Quaterfinals

Brent Lanthier

Cloughie is gone... and so are the dynasties he built

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Klinsmann to solve TFC identity crisis

Unfortunately I was working for the man (aka CTV News) yesterday, which prevented me from going down to BMO Field and listening to Juergen Klinsmann talk in vague, broad terms about coming up with an identity for footy in Toronto (here’s a suggestion: a winning, playoff-calibre team). The German God of Goals, who showed no problems dropping several answers in Italian to his ethnically diverse audience, insisted he won’t become a full-time fixture in our fair city, shooting down talk that he’ll take on a coaching or management role. Some local soccer writers were more impressed with Klinsmann’s straight talk and realistic goals than others, who wondered (quite rightly) where the accountability will rest. For better or for worse, Juergen is just the ideas man, and MLSE’s Tom Anselmi will get the final say on new hires.

One other nugget of news that came down last night as I was sucking back a tasty Pompous Ass Cask Ale at the delightful Bar Volo on Yonge Street: Hamilton native and promising MLS striker Teal Bunbury has been called up for the US team’s friendly against South Africa in Cape Town. Bunbury won’t rule himself out of a lifetime of Maple Leaf misery if he suits up for the Yanks…it’s just an exhibition match…but the chances of him following his dad’s footsteps as a Canadian soccer stalwart seem to be slipping away.

Ian Harrison

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Number Crunching

Nani, are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK, Nani?

While my distant relative Sir Alex (an ancestral assumption on my part) makes it look easy, there’s a lot of factors to consider when you’re the manager. (Groans from the editorial staff).

You’ve got what you see from your fairly crappy vantage point at the side of the pitch, what you see when reviewing the game tape… and then there are the cold emotionless — but truthful — facts of the stats.

As a fantasy manager there are three key stats you need to look at to maintain a top knotch squad.

First… the overall score. This tells you who has been consistently producing all year at a high level… but often the numbers are more deceiving than you would think. For example, can you quickly guess who has been the most productive points producer in the Premier League this season? Drogba?

Nope. It’s Manchester United’s Nani who leads the league with 78 points followed by Drogba with 74, Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll with a shocking 72 alongside Florent Malouda and rounding out the top five is another Chelsea man, defender Ashley Cole with 71.

Second… value. This is a very important stat as it compares how a player’s points production with his cost.  The top player is this category is the aforementioned Carroll with Bolton striker Johan Elmander close behind. Newcastle’s Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton are also providing a lot of bang for your buck along with goalkeepers Simon Mignolet from Sunderland and Birmingham’s Ben Foster.

Last one is form. Self-explanatory. You want players who are playing their best starting for your squad. According to the form stats provided by the premierleague.com pool, nobody is hotter than Andy Carroll, with Nolan, and Wigan’s Charles N’Zogbia close behind. After that come the big names like Nani, Fernando Torres, and Marouane Chamakh from Arsenal.

Transfers

I’ve been getting it handed to me on my predictions lately so use these with caution! It’s all strikers this week!

Nando fights his way to the top of Fergie's picks

In: Fernando Torres
First off, remember a few short weeks ago when I told you to get rid of Fernando Torres until he starts scoring? Well he’s started! You need to get him in your lineup now! I’m sorry I ever doubted him. Those two goals against Chelsea were the kind of magic Liverpool fans have been waiting for… and there is more to come.

But how can you afford him? You’ll have to figure that one out. Dropping the similarly priced Didier Drogba or Carlos Tevez would be an option but a risky one. Drogba is recovering from malaria and has been quiet of late, but you get the feeling he’s ready to go off on another goal-scoring spree that could begin again at home versus Sunderland this weekend.

In: Marouane Chamakh
The verdict is in. He’s the real deal and a strong option if you can’t afford Torres. Will his minutes be cut back with the returning Robin Van Persie? Better hope not if you are a Gunners fan. Dropping the under-performing Dimitar Berbatov may help you fit him into your lineup.  Yes, I know I told you pick up Berbatov last month.  But I forgot that when someone else on United starts scoring (in this case the brilliant Javier Hernandez)Berbatov starts slumping. And pouting. Like I said, my picks have not been gold lately.
Carroll: The Geordie Fabio

In: Andrew Carroll
How many times can I write that you need to have Andrew Carroll in your lineup? Apparently quite a bit, but it’s been a few weeks since I mentioned him. He is becoming as reliable as his ponytail is long. That’s right: he’s about a foot too reliable.

Scott Ferguson

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