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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