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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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The Falcao Final

Skittish Colombian…

Wednesday night’s Europa League final between Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was billed as an all-Spanish affair between two teams that live off the scraps of La Liga’s big dogs.  Their kits are almost identical, as are their names.  Both have Argentinian coaches and both teams have been hovering around each other in the league table for some time now.

The similarities end there.

A look at the Bilbao team sheet showed a side that was unabashedly Basque.  Even the sole player born outside Spain is named after a Basque town.  Contrast that with Atlético, who took to the pitch with only four Spaniards, only two of whom were native madrileños.  In fact, no member of the starting XI had taken part in the team’s victorious Europa League campaign two years earlier.

So even though one team was full of young giant killers playing for ethnic pride (remember that Bilbao took out a full-strength Manchester United), they faced a side of able-bodied “mercenaries”.  In particular, they were forced to defend against a man who has put a definitive stamp on European nights.  This night was no different for Radamel Falcao.   The Colombian tormented Bilbao’s back eight throughout the match, and needed just seven minutes to find the net, switching feet to find space in the box before unleashing an absolutely lovely effort .  His second came from inside, more of what we have come to expect from the man who has lifted two Europa League trophies over the last 12 months, breaking scoring records in the process.

Heroes, old and new…

It remains to be seen how long he remains at Atlético Madrid.  Despite Falcao arriving only last year from Porto, the man who turned his club’s fortunes around — coach  Diego Simeone — may have a tough time convincing the board not to cash in on the player, even if the continental giants come calling.

But tonight, Falcao remains a Rojiblanco, as yet another trophy begins another year residing in the Spanish capital.

A couple of side bars:

– Atlético captain Diego Godín must be riding high.  Not only has he won the Europa League, but he is coming off a calendar year where he won the Copa America with his native Uruguay, as well as a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup.  At 26, the central defender is coming into prime time.

– Chelsea will be both excited and relieved at the efforts of their goalkeeping protégé, Thibaut Courtois.  The Belgian has been on-loan to Atlético all season.  After a shaky start, Courtois — like many of his teammates — seems to have settled down with Simeone’s arrival mid-season.   He wasn’t tested much in the final because of excellent Madrid defending.  But Courtois did make some impressive saves in a major European final, despite not turning 20 until Friday.  Ladies and gentlemen, the heir apparent to Petr Cech…

Brent Lanthier

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Super Cup = Super Farce

Soccernet called today’s meeting of the Champions League, er, champions and the Europa League winners as the “creme de la creme” of European football.

Puh-leez.

The title is a farce. It made sense when the European Cup Winers played the Cup Winners’ Cup holder.  But now the latter has been abolished and melted into some bastard tournament that also features a rank mix of Champions League losers and domestic also-rans.

Case in point: Atletico Madrid took the inaugural EL title by winning a total of three proper European games. Three.

After qualifying for the Champions League group stages, they were demoted to Europa after failing to win a single game. They managed a win before needing away goals in the next two rounds to advance. They then made it to the final after beating Liverpool on aggregate, winning the first leg and then squeaking an extra-time goal in 2-1 loss.  An overtime defeat of Fulham in Hamburg made them unlikely champions of a Mickey Mouse tournament.

So Atletico entered today’s game as heavy underdogs… underlined by their ninth place finish in La Liga last season (which would not even have earned them their current berth in this season’s Europa League — a place guaranteed for the title holders) .  They should have crumbled at the feet of Italy’s treble winners.  Enter Rafa Benitez.

What other reason could there be for Atletico’s defeat of mighty Internazionale? The newly-installed Benitez started 10 of the 11 starters from last season’s CL final.  It was a squad heavy with superstars, laden with hardware from this season’s draw ceremony.  So what other excuse could there be for a dull first-half without a single shot on goal?

No Inter success for Rafa Benitez

Rafa’s past seems to bite him in the ass. It was two former Liverpool players — Djibril Cisse and Sebastian Leto — who got the better of Inter when they played Panathinaikos in Toronto last month.  Rafa has had to follow the footsteps of a bitter rival to the north of Italy when Mourniho took the helm of the Spaniard’s true’ love, Real Madrid. And tonight, it was the Spanish capital’s lesser light that got the better of Rafa’s supposed ready-made superpower. Atletico wouldn’t even allow him the consolation of a penalty, after Los Rojiblancos’s keeper made a brilliant save.

But to what end? Can Atletico now say they are the real champions of Europe? Unlikely.  It’s one more of UEFA’s byzantine methods to create more games for more gate and more TV revenue, while allowing some substandard team to put a piece of silverware in the trophy case.

If this is the creme de la creme, then UEFA should kill the cow… because they are just diluting the product.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Champions League, La Liga, Serie A

World Cup Payday

The best way I’ve heard the World Cup described is that it’s a sprint, not a marathon. In a sport where the best players on the biggest club teams often have to play a 50+ match season, seven games over a month isn’t a lot — and it may not be the best way to judge a player’s ability.

Scouting for the big clubs is a now a world-wide affair and it’s rare that a player is unknown.  But a great tournament performance can be too irresistible for some teams to pass up. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. Witness then-Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier’s ill-chosen signings from the 2002 Senegal team.

Still… if you base it on their World Cup performances, here’s 10 players who have earned a change of scenery.

Forlan's Golden Ball may earn him a golden handshake

Diego Forlan (URU)
Current Club: Atletico Madrid
This tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Forlan is coming off a Europa League win as well. He has excelled since leaving the Premier League and says he won’t go back. Look for Juventus to make an offer as Atletico tries to raise funds for defensive players.

Luis Suarez (URU)
Current Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Suarez played well off of Forlan, and scored some lovely goals before the hand-ball “incident”. He is rumoured to be a part of Ajax’s restructuring i.e. massive sell-off that already has Martin Jol seeing red.

Maxi Pereira (URU)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
This writer’s pick for right-back of the tournament, Pereira ran rampant on the flank. He scored against the Dutch, while clocking up 66 kilometres in six games. With natural fullbacks at a premium in the Prem, perhaps Senor Pereira might head north for the winter…

Carlos Salcido (MEX)
Current Club: PSV Eindhoven
The left-back led his national team in shots at this World Cup, including a close one off the crossbar against Argentina. A highly-rated player, even ‘Arry tried to sign him.  Rumours are that Roberto Martinez will try to bring him to Wigan.

Fabio Coentrao (POR)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
Only 22 years old, Coentrao was amazing on the left flank, slotted in as a fullback but playing like a winger. There is already talk that fellow countryman Jose Mourinho will pluck him from Lisbon and drop him into Madrid. Rumours are also swirling that Chelsea buying him as a replacement for Ashley Cole.

Justo Villar (PAR)
Current Club: Real Valladolid (Spanish 2nd Division)
Villar allowed only two goals all tournament — and one of them was David Villa’s weird-ass goal that went off the post three times. Villar also blocked a re-taken penalty kick and, in the match against Japan, denied the swarming Keisuke Honda a goal. Plus, he’s wanted out of his newly-relegated club since last season.

John Mensah (GHA)
Current Club: Olympique Lyonnais
What are the odds? Ghana’s central defence consisted of Johnathan Mensah —  who plays for Udinese — and Lyon’s John Mensah. Confusing, non? What’s not confusing is John’s next probable destination. He played 15 games for Sunderland on-loan last season — even scoring a goal and Steve Bruce would like to bring him back.  But it would likely have to be on loan again because of Mensah’s injury problems.

Robinho (BRA)
Current Club: Manchester City
Robinho spent last season on loan back in his native Brazil, due to a falling out with Citeh manager, Roberto Mancini. After a very decent performance alongside Luis Fabiano, it’s likely that Robinho will never return to Manchester. There are rumours he could be used as trade bait for Inter Milan’s Balotelli, or to pry young Brazilian star Neymar from Santos.

Mesut Ozil (GER)
Current Team: Werder Bremen
Everyone and their mother seem to be keen on Germany’s playmaker. The 21-year-old Ozil has been valued at 15 million pounds by Bremen. After scoring a goal — and helping on three others — he may be worth it.

Klose may still have wind in his wings...

Miroslav Klose (GER)
Current Club: Bayern Munich
This old warhorse had a great World Cup, scoring some unattractive but not unappreciated goals. He has vowed to remain in Munich for the last year of his contract, but after only starting 12 times last season due to injury, Klose has a tough fight on his hands. A stellar domestic season by first-choice Ivica Olic — and an astounding international debut by Thomas Muller — means it may be in Klose’s best interests to find another team.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under La Liga, Premier League, World Cup