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Luis Suarez: The Rob Ford of Football

suarez fordHe is very, very, very sorry.  Lo siento.  It will never happen again.

Luis Suárez’ pseudo-apology for his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini is meant to placate the footballing world, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The Uruguayan should be on top of the world, but instead of topping a career season with Liverpool, the striker has had to deal with more of the controversy that follows him around.

As Suarez deals with his demons, so too does a man who has returned to the spotlight in the arena of politics.  Toronto mayor Rob Ford is back on the job today, after several weeks in rehab.  You can’t help but look at the two men’s situations and see the similarities.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Both are more famous for their behaviour than their job.   Most casual sports fans had never heard of Luis Suárez before the biting incident, or had forgotten about his brazen hand ball in the 2010 World Cup.  You’d be hard pressed to take a group of 100 people at a bar watching the World Cup and get them to tell you Suárez’ club team, or how many goals he scored for them this year.  But everyone remembers The Bite, played over and over and over again.

Rob Ford made Toronto a laughing stock the world over by admitting to smoke crack cocaine, bumping into cameras, and making a drunken ass of himself while clinging on to his vestiges of power.  But almost no one outside Toronto (and sadly, a majority of people in the city) know about his 10-year career as a city councillor, his stance on privatizing garbage collection, property taxes, etc.  He is simply Toronto’s Crack-Smoking Mayor.

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

They have serious problems.  Before you get upset that I am attempting to link drug and alcohol addiction to a serial biter, know this: any addiction expert will tell you the underlying issue for an addict is a mental anxiety, trauma or compulsive behaviour issue.  The person with these issues might lash out, they might overindulge, they might feel frustrated… but all of them engage in socially unacceptable and, frankly, harmful behaviours.  It is not the sign of a healthy person when a player — widely acknowledged as one of the top-five players in the world — lashes out in a base and animalistic way in front of hundreds of millions of people.

Rob Ford is the mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America.  He is in charge of a government that eclipses other provinces, states and even some nations in economic clout and influence.  Yet this is a guy who showed up at City Hall and in public as drunk as the proverbial skunk.  He was at the height of his power and then threw it away.

I’m sure that both men, when calm and collected, know their behaviour is wrong.  Yet in times of great strain and anxiety, both men act out in ways they know they will regret later.

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Both are enabled by those closest to them.  When Ford first admitted to smoking crack cocaine, Toronto news station CP24 interviewed his mother and sister.   When pressed about his behaviour, his mother explained that her son had a weight problem, not a drug problem.   His sister also denied that Ford had a drug problem because she is  “a former addict” and she would know.  Before police found a video of the mayor using drugs, Ford and his brother, Doug, repeated until they were blue in the face (or in Rob’s case, very red) that everything was fine.

Suárez has also been enabled… by his club, by his national side, by the very nation he represents.   Liverpool bought him in January 2011, as he was coming off a suspension for his first biting incident.  In fact, LFC negotiated for him with Ajax Amsterdam while he was serving the suspension.  You’d expect the Uruguayan’s behaviour problems to devalue the player, but Liverpool ended up paying £22.5 million, a club transfer record at the time.  The next season, he was suspended eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.  Liverpool’s response was to have the team practice in Luis Suárez t-shirts, saying they believed Suárez, not Evra.   Eighteen months later, Suárez bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic , resulting in a 10-match ban.

Uruguayans are outraged by the latest Suárez ban because they love Luisito.  They love his never-say-die, win-at-all-costs mentality.  To them, FIFA has judged harshly because they believe that a player’s profile and accomplishments must be taken into consideration.  Basically, they believe there should be one set of rules for superstars and another for everyone else.  That is the very essence of enabling.

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

Both men and their supporters blame the media for their troubles. The fall back position of many a fallen public figure is to blame everyone but themselves, including the messengers.  Like so many other conservative politicians, the Fords initially blamed the crack video story on the left-wing media, who only wanted to smear the mayor’s good name.  When Rob finally admitted to the drug use, Doug attacked the media for pillorying his brother, saying he had simply “made a mistake” and asking why they couldn’t just leave him alone.

When the Suárez incident first happened, he denied it.  When he was banned, he denied it again.  His national team coach, Óscar Tabárez, cried conspiracy, saying that his star striker was a “scapegoat” who’d been punished because of pressure brought by “English-speaking journalists”.   When Suárez scored his two goals against England, he said that he felt vindicated for the way he had been treated by the English press over his previous biting and racism incidents.

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Both men have populist support, despite their behaviour.  By now, Torontonians are sick of the over-used “Ford Nation”, an umbrella term for predominately white, older, working-class, conservative voters who live in Toronto’s suburbs.  Ford speaks to this group, continually claiming that he sticking up for the little guy against the downtown, fat cat elites (including the aforementioned media).  His behaviour (“Just having a few beers.”) and his apologies (“Who hasn’t made a mistake?”) have found traction in a group that sees themselves in him, drug problems notwithstanding.

Likewise, Suarez is revered by his compatriots…even his fellow continentals.  After this latest ban, Uruguay captain Diego Lugano called the punishment “barbaric”, saying Suárez’ human rights had been violated and that “not even a criminal would receive this penalty.”   Argentinian legend Diego Maradona — the Suárez of his day — compared the ban to being sent to Guantanamo Bay.   In a nod to his late predecessor’s extreme populist stances, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro invoked the spirit of Hugo Chávez by claiming that “all of South America” rejects the ban against “the son of the people”.  You can’t get much more people power than that.

A media circus has surrounded Ford... and City Hall

A media circus has surrounded Ford… and City Hall

Both men have bit the hands that feed them.  When Ford lied about his crack use, then later admitted it when confronted with video evidence, he eroded the credibility of all who had supported him.  His allies on council turned against him, leaving his own brother to sputter out half-excuses on behalf of his wayward sibling.  He hurt the reputation of his city and made those who had backed him look foolish.  He turned City Hall into a circus, bringing the business of government grinding to a halt as the spectacle played out day after day, week after week.  Local media missed big, but boring, stories in favour of tracking Rob Ford, awaiting another gaffe.  A politician with any sense of shame and duty would have bowed out.  But Ford doesn’t care about the city… he only cares about himself, and won’t let his remaining reins of power go.

Suárez has done no one any favours.  While he almost led Liverpool to its first Premier League title in almost a quarter-century, he has missed 34 matches for his two clubs since the infamous Ghana hand ball game at World Cup 2010, almost one full season out of four.   Despite Liverpool’s support, he sought to abandon the club last summer in favour of a move away.  First he wanted to go to Spain to “get away from England”, then he lobbied for a move to Arsenal… which obviously is still in England.  Meanwhile, for two straight World Cups, Uruguay has rued his suspensions that followed his bad behaviour.  Just as his national side could have used him against Spain in the 2010 semifinal, so too did they miss him against the surging Colombians on Saturday.   You get the sense that Uruguay’s time has come and gone… as their wait for another World title extends to 68 years.

Suarez' apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Suarez’ apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Both men have shown contrition at opportune times.   Over the term of his mayoralty, Ford has faced questions about being drunk in public, about assaults, and about drug use.  Each time he was confronted with a transgression, Ford denied…until he was confronted with evidence and overwhelming negative opinion.  Then, he apologized.  And apologized.  And apologized again.   We could have accepted his apologies if he hadn’t been so vicious in his denials, laying the blame elsewhere and threatening those who would think otherwise.  Yet, in the end, the journalists who exposed him have been vindicated, forcing Ford to back pedal.  When a second video came along, Ford finally went into rehab… if only to jump back onto the campaign trail when he finished.

Luis Suárez has also been contrary: he denied that he intentionally raised his hand to block a shot, until confronted with the video.  He initially denied saying anything racist, but then changed his testimony and tack, admitting that he said it.. but that it wasn’t racist where he came from.  Now he’s had to apologize after being confronted with a lengthy ban.  But Suárez’ half-hearted mea culpa is conveniently timed, considering that it is an alleged condition of a potential move to Barcelona.  Instead of being punished, it appears the striker’s apology will get him exactly what he wants.

Despite their setbacks, despite their very public falls from grace, neither Ford nor Suarez has yet to experience a true comeuppance.  But that may still come to fruition.  Ford is back to work today.  He still plans to run for mayor, and polls show he still has a solid base of support.  But it remains to be seen if he can translate that support into actual votes come October 27.  If he doesn’t win, he’s likely out of politics for good.

Meanwhile, Suarez could get his wish of a move to Barcelona.  But after almost a decade of success, the Catalan club appears to be on the downward side of the curve that all teams experience.  He is not of La Masia, the fabled Barça academy… and he does not embrace the concept of team very well.  Suárez may not find the titles he craves… but he may find that his talent and time have passed him by.

Both men may yet wonder what could have been… an awful thing when you’ve been to the places they’ve been.

Too bad… so sorry.

Brent P. Lanthier

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AC Milan: Il Diavolo is in the Details

C'mon Thiago, give us a kiss...

One club is considered the best in the world; the other is a team that has found its way back to the top of its domestic league.  Both were surprised this weekend by so-called lesser sides.  Tonight, it was Barcelona that showed its quality over AC Milan.  Unfortunately for Barca, the scoresheet didn’t reflect it.

Two goals by Milan’s Brazilian stars bookended the game and stole a point for the Rossoneri.  The World Champions dominated up until that point: Barcelona had 80% possession at the 75th-minute mark… a calling card for the Catalonians.  Gaffer Pep Guardiola says he’s not worried… nor should he be.

It’s the Italian club that should be wringing its hands.   The consensus is that AC Milan will have a tough time defending the scudetto…  and judging by their last two performances, they may prove the pundits right.  Not only did Barca’s tiki-taka have Milan on the back heel for most of the match, but the Italian champs kicked off the Serie A season on Thursday by having to fight back against a new-look Lazio.  Add the Roman club to Milan’s growing list of league rivals:

– Internazionale is aging but still potent.
– Juventus may be an Old Lady, but she may find a sabbatical from Europe rejuvenating.  
– Udinese was the better team against Arsenal in CL qualifiers, and could build on last year’s success.
– The South seems to be rising again with Palermo beating Inter 4-3 (again, the Nerrazzurri looked slow and old)… and Napoli being picked as a dark horse for the title.

Zlatan the Terrible

And while he didn’t play tonight, Milan still has its good luck charm: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Every team he has played on since 2004 has won its domestic title (if you include Juventus’ revoked trophies).  He is a big, black belt-wearing nutter who has a goals-per-game average of at least 50% in the last six seasons.  Plus, NOW he’s eating his Wheaties.

Brent Lanthier

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World’s finest come from too few teams

First of all, congratulations to Lionel Messi for capturing his second consecutive World Player of the Year award. Though Xavi and Andres Iniesta were also worthy finalists, little Leo’s tally of 58 goals in 54 games for Barca last year was simply too outstanding for voters to ignore. Congratulations also must go out to every player named to FIFA’s world XI, all of whom were outstanding at their respective positions last year:

GK: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)

RB: Maicon (Inter)

CB: Lucio (Inter)

CB: Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

LB: Carles Puyol (Barcelona)

MF: Xavi (Barcelona)

MF: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)

MF: Wesley Sneijder (Inter)

FWD: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

FWD:  David Villa (Barcelona)

FWD: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

A look at the players, however, shows a disturbing pattern. All of the XI belong to just three clubs! And the way Real Madrid and Barcelona are tearing up La Liga this season, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that next season’s World XI will be comprised entirely of players from just those two Spanish squads.

We all love to watch soccer for various reasons, but I think everyone can agree that one of the most compelling reasons is the game’s unpredictability. If European soccer continues to be dominated by so few teams, then the game will begin to bore us all. Yawn. Wake me when Real and Barca make the Champions League final, will ya???

Hadi Zogheib

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Out with the Old, Inter with the New

Whole Motta love from Leonardo

Premier League clubs, take note.  It seems that the key to revitilizing your squad involves hiring a manager whose resume doesn’t include a stint at a club that rhymes with Shiver Pull.

Such is it with Internazionale. The World Champions never got off the ground under Rafa Benitez.  Even in this summer’s exhibition game in Toronto — against Greek champions Panathinaikos — the Milanese side lacked imagination and flow.  By the end of 2010, Inter sat seventh — 13 points behind their rivals AC Milan, who are threatening to take away one of the trophies their crosstown rivals won in their treble season.

So out goes Rafa and in comes Milano legend Leonardo.  Questions were raised in the Italian north whether the Brazilian could revive the tired and injured-riddled rivals of his former club.  Those questions were put to rest within three minutes during today’s match against Napoli.

The game was riveting from the get-go, with the ball going end-to-end — the antithesis of stereotypes about Italian football.  It was Thiago Motta who sparked the Inter revivial — finishing a Balkan sequence from Dejan Stankovic and Goran Pandev to put them up 1-0.

But Napoli are near the top of the table for a reason.  A corner from Liverpool reject Andrea Dossena went straight into the box, and a brave Michele Pazienza stuck his head in, bringing the Neapolitans level.

Fast forward to the 33rd minute when Diego Milito flubbed a wide cross in front of the net, sending the ball sailing over the crossbar.  But less than a minute later, Inter were back in the box and Esteban Cambiasso made no mistake.  The unmarked Argentine raced in and took a remarkable cross from Maicon in the far corner and converted. 2-1 Inter Milan.

It should be worth noting how Maicon seemed to drive the team forward.  The powerful Brazilian seems to have recovered from injury and awakened from his slumber in the first half of the season.  The fullback was a constant threat on the right, finding the ball wide and providing service for Inter’s attackers.

Motta celebrates his second goal...

But it was Motta who provided the book-ends for Leonardo’s first win in charge.  The former Barca man found the end of Pandev’s corner kick in the 55th, sealing victory for the Nerazzurri.

Massimo Moratti says he considered hiring Leonardo in June, but eventually settled on Benitez.  You can bet that English clubs like Liverpool, Aston Villa and West Ham have also spent the last six months regretting their choice of manager.  All three clubs may yet pull an Inter before the month is through.

Brent Lanthier

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Know Thine Enemy

Ronaldo shows us the dimensions of his bathroom mirror

My main interest has always been in the Premier League.  But football is a global game, with so much movement for players between leagues that — as a soccer pundit — you have to know your stuff.  So I found said stuff, pressing my nose to the computer screen, scanning for facts and figures, and forcing my brain to sharpen its knowledge of all the big leagues.

Fast forward to November.  After Real Madrid’s humiliating defeat in El Clasico, I became intrigued.  Now I wanted to see how Real’s season plays out.  Of course, Los Merengues are the biggest football club in the world (and I’m saying this as a Liverpool fan).  Their manager might be the best football mind in the game today (sorry, Manchester).  But my reasons for watching them aren’t entirely academic.

I despise Real Madrid and I want to watch them lose.

Jose Mourinho: Madrid’s Dark Angel

I think Jose Mourinho is an evil genius, a Professor Moriarty.  I remember his time in the Premier League as an instigator, an irritant in front of the microphone who could make an enemy out of Doug the Dog.

I think Cristiano Ronaldo is an enfant terrible, a child prodigy whose ascent into adulthood has done nothing to curb his toys-out-the-pram attitude.  If anything, it has enhanced it.  Every time I see a call go against him, I secretly revel in his misfortune.  Well, actually, there’s nothing secret about it: I swear at him through my TV screen.

I think Real Madrid are what’s wrong with football. They are a club who started the inflationary economics of today’s game with the assembly of the Galacticos teams ten years ago.  I hate it when they trot out their nine European titles, even though the first five came when the competition was still finding its legs.

The truth is that Real are a very good squad right now.  But they share a league — and a bitter rivalry — with what could be the best team that ever was. So yes, Ronaldo scored two more goals tonight, putting him ahead of  likely Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi.  And yes, Real dominated their neighbours tonight — but not like they have other teams this season.

It might be that, despite their best efforts, Real Madrid will be pipped to the league and European titles by an incredible Barcelona side. Of course, there is still half the season to play, and I don’t know how it will play out.  But I’ll be watching.

Brent Lanthier

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CL draw: Spurs get San Siro return

When Tottenham was drawn against Young Boys of Bern in Champions League qualifying back in August, it was a dream draw for the North London’s debutantes, the easiest opponent Spurs could have faced at the final hurdle before the group stages of the competition.

And although they nearly bolloxed things up by falling behind 3-0 in the opening 30 minutes of the first leg, Spurs recovered to sweep past the Swiss side and move on to the tournament proper, where their only slip-up in six matches was a 4-3 defeat to Inter at Milan’s San Siro. A 3-1 triumph in the return leg at White Hart Lane put Tottenham on top of Group A to stay, meaning they’d avoid some of Europe’s heaviest hitters in this morning’s draw for the Round of 16.

This time, there was no dream draw, and Tottenham must go back to their house of first-half horrors to face Inter’s crosstown rivals AC Milan in February. The best scenario this time, if it could be considered as such, was probably FC Copenhagen, the first Danish side to reach the last 16. But even as a group winner, Tottenham still faced the prospect of many problematic opponents. And in the Rossoneri, current Serie A leaders, Tottenham have drawn one of the toughest. Sure, Marseille, Lyon and Valencia wouldn’t have been cakewalks, either, but this promises to be a stern, serious test.

Spurs, who will hope to be healthier in 10 weeks time, will be coming home for the second leg, of course. And our man ’Arry isn’t afraid of the big, bad boys from Northern Italy, saying he’s happy to keep measuring his squad against the best.

Of course, as North London squads go, Tottenham’s draw looks far better than neighbourhood rivals Arsenal, who face the daunting task of a battle with Barcelona, the same team that knocked them out of the tournament last year, and beat the Gooners in the 2006 final. Good luck with that one, lads.

Rather than Spurs, it was West London’s Chelsea who got the great Dane draw against Copenhagen, while Manchester United will meet Marseille. Inter got Bayern Munich in a rematch of last year’s final. Will the embattled Rafa Benitez still be in charge by then?

Meanwhile, the scabby Europa League teams also learned their fate today, with Man. Citeh drawn against Greece’s Aris Salonika, the team that knocked title holders Atletico Madrid out of the tournament. Obi Woy’s Liverpool get Sparta Prague, and Tottenham’s old adversary Young Boys, still alive in this competition, get Zenit St. Petersburg, who were UEFA Cup winners in 2008.

Finally, speaking of Swiss men and young boys, FIFA head of corruption president Sepp Blattter has apologized for his recent remarks urging homosexual fans to refrain from gay sex in Qatar. I give old Joseph a piece of my mind in my weekly Toro Magazine column today.

Ian Harrison

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Filed under Champions League, Premier League, Serie A, World Cup

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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Luck of the draw? Yids learn CL fate

Welcome to the Champions League, Tottenham. And just in case you weren’t sure who the best team in the tournament was, it became painfully evident as teammate after teammate from reigning title holders Inter Milan sauntered up to the stage during today’s draw in Monaco (a painfully long event but one surprisingly well photographed by audience members) to receive player of the tournament awards. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar, defender Maicon, midfielder Wesley Sneijder and striker Diego Milito (who also won player of the year) were each honoured with a small trophy and the opportunity to pick little balls out of a cup and reveal the teams within. And when all was said and done, Spurs found themselves in Group A alongside Inter’s star-studded cast. Will the Italian treble winners still be the same team with Rafa Benitez at the helm? We’ll find out when the Serie A gets rolling this weekend.

Of course, it’s a better draw for Spurs than they would have faced in Group G, whose teams have won a combined 20 Champions League crowns and finished runner-up nine times. At least, with Germany’s Werder Bremen and Holland’s FC Twente rounding out Group A, the last three teams are fairly evenly balanced, meaning second place and passage to the knockout round should be up for grabs. Despite their lofty UEFA coefficient, I’d rather face Bremen (third in the Bundesliga last year) from Pot 2 than any of Real Madrid, Roma, Valencia, Marseille, Panathinaikos or Benfica. Twente, who won their first Eredivisie title last season but saw Schteve leave for Germany over the summer, were one of the highest ranked teams in Pot 4. It’s also a kind geographical draw for Spurs, with no lengthy excursions to Kazan, Donetsk or Tel Aviv required.

Whoever the opponent, health of key players is a big issue for Spurs with the first matchday just over two weeks away. I’ll be happy as long as Welsh winger Gareth Bale, who set up all four goals in Wednesday’s famous 4-0 win over Young Boys, is healthy and ready to run. He’s been become  simply brilliant since Arry told him to stop messing with his barnet.

Fans of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, all Pot 1 teams, are undoubtedly feeling pretty comfortable about their team’s chances of progression to the round of 16, with all three London clubs dreaming of a berth at the Wem-ber-lee final. In Manchester, the police force is already bracing for trouble when Rangers visit, based on their experience from the UEFA Cup Final in 2008, while the tie gives Sir Alex gets a chance to face his former team.

What’s also shocking is the number of big names  who’ll be watching from the wings this Champions League season, including Liverpool, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Olympiacos, Villareal, Zenit St. Petersburg, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe.

In today’s Europa League playoffs, a reeling Aston Villa met their match in Rapid Vienna for the second successive year, with a Stiliyan Petrov penalty miss proving fatal, while Celtic’s European misery continued with a 4-0 defeat at Utrecht. Liverpool and Manchester City, however, both booked passage to the group stages, with the Reds reversing an early 1-0 deficit at Trabzonspor and Citeh easing to a 2-0 win over Timisoara.

On this side of the Atlantic, current MLS champions Real Salt Lake watched a 3-1 lead turn into a 5-4 defeat at Mexico City’s Cruz Azul in CONCACAF Champions League play Wednesday night, meaning all four teams in Group A, including Toronto FC, have a win and a loss through two matches. As for TFC, they were busy today announcing Doneil Henry as the first academy player to sign a pro contract.

Ian Harrison

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Filed under Bundesliga, Champions League, English Football, Eredivisie, Europa League, MLS, Premier League, Scottish Premier, Serie A

Kicking and Screaming

If you want blood, you got it.

There was certainly no shortage of blood-letting again in the Premier League this weekend, as some teams scored at will:

– Chelsea has run rampant over the dregs of the division, following their 6-0 drubbing of West Brom with the same scoreline against sorry Wigan, who lost 4-0 to Blackpool in Week 1.

– Blackpool came crashing down to earth when they had their arses handed to them by Arsenal, 6-0.

– After doing a number on West Ham in the first week, a James Milner-less Villa was sent to the showers by new boys Newcastle… again, 6-0.

– Once-mighty Liverpool (well, not lately, I admit) were sent crawling back to Merseyside after losing to New Chelsea, er, Manchester City, 3-0.

For Liverpool and Aston Villa, success has been fleeting of late. The parallels are too hard to ignore. Both are massive clubs that are now in the hands of American owners, unwilling — or unable — to spend Big Four money (and make no mistake, yesterday’s loss is a clear sign that Liverpool are no longer a top-four club). Both have had their managers leave in the off-season, unhappy with the economic restraints on their team. And both have had to deal with wantaway players whose contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Milner suits up for City

I can’t help thinking that Villa’s humiliation is the end result of Milner’s long, drawn-out transfer saga with Premier League poachers Man City. The Blue Side of Manchester have been kit disturbers since Sheikh money started to roll in. Martin O’Neill was furious last year after Citeh-slickers started to whisper in the ears of Gareth Barry, tempting him away from the Midlands.

Or just ask Everton’s David Moyes. Joleon Lescott made it clear that his one-off fluke season was good enough to earn him a spot at a “bigger club.” Contract? Schmontract. Away he goes, and it took until after Christmas for the Toffees to get over the loss and settle into a new groove.

But it’s one thing to bitch and moan about where you work, it’s another not to show up at all. Yesterday, perpetual cry-baby Javier Mascherano decided he would not play for Liverpool, in light of the club’s refusal to accept an offer from Barcelona.

How ironic is it that one of the players offered up for the Argentine is Alexander Hleb. You’ll recall the Belarusian went to the Nou Camp two years ago, after pouting his way out of Arsenal. He failed to find a spot and is now transfer bait. Clap. Clap. Clap.

The Reds won’t be bullied into the deal. Good for them.  But this trend of leaving teams when things aren’t going your way is disturbing. Barcelona and Real have been the biggest offenders lately, trying to tempt players to switch shirts: think Mascherano and Fabregas this year, as well as Ronaldo and Alonso in seasons past. But Manchester United have also been known to upset the football cart, as did Chelsea when Russian mob oil money started to flow in.

The Bosman rule was created so that players could have a say in where they went… either by leaving on a free, or by nixing a deal to another team if they didn’t like it.

But stomping your feet and refusing to play when you’ve signed on the dotted line is bad for your teammates, it’s bad for the fans and it’s bad for the game. It isn’t just bad business…

It’s a bloody disgrace.

Brent Lanthier

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Consider the Gaffer

"I'm thinking of a player between 1 and 10..."

The half-truths, the innuendo, the egos… I can’t wait.

Mad Men’s season premiere is tonight.

But there is also this nebulous time in the football world — after the World Cup, but before the league seasons start — where players, agents, managers and the media all say the most outrageous things in the hopes that they’ll come true. It’s very Geppetto-esque… like wishing that Cristiano Ronaldo will someday become a real boy.

'Arry orders another drink before speaking to the press

First of all, managers are scrambling to strengthen their squads, while hoping to outsmart their opponents. Witness ‘Arry’s backhanded compliment towards Manchester City.

The gaffers also have the task of trying to keep their stars happy and at home. Arsene Wenger has had to beat off Barcelona with a stick for Cesc Fabregas.  West Ham has had to put a ridiculous price tag on Scott Parker.  And sadly, some clubs are willing to pay absurd amounts just to pry a player away, with Manchester City assuming the role of Cheslea, circa 2004 — or Real Madrid, years 2000 to the present. More on them in a second.

Of course, some managers get by on good old-fashioned wits and salesmenship. Just ask Joe Cole.  But even though Roy Hodgson has done a little bit of transfer magic, it still might not be enough to keep Fernando Torres on Merseyside. And before you can sweet-talk a player, you have to be able to actually talk to him first.

The Special One starts his freshman season at Real Madrid, with pockets as deep as he had when he was in London’s West End.   So of course, the media has linked Jose Mourinho to everyone in the football world, on every team, ever.

Meanwhile, the man who wanted Mourinho’s new job — but got his old one instead — will have to show that he can build on last year’s treble success, and basically not f#ck things up.  Good luck, Rafa, you’ll need it.  And you thought the English press was bad… look for more rants this season.

The one manager who has remained suprisingly quiet in all of this is Sir Alex Ferguson.  True, he had to offer Dolph Lundgren-look-alike Nemanja Vidic a new contract to keep the other vultures away.  But SAF has only bought two players — Javier Hernandez and Fulham’s Chris Smalling.  Maybe Sir Alex is revelling in the fact that Manchester United only had five players away at the World Cup — six, if you count Hernandez — and none of them made it out of the second round.  Get yer rest boys, yer going to need it.

Speaking of Sir Alex, At The Rails’ own Ian Harrison wrote a lovely piece on the man for Toro Magazine on Fergie’s ties to our home and native land.

But until the leagues begin, I’ve got a bit of Mad Men to watch. And now for a gratuitous picture of Christina Hendricks.  Because I can…

Football? What football?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brent Lanthier

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