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Real dominates Rayo Vallecano in Derbi Madrileño

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Nine minutes… that’s how long it took Real Madrid put down Rayo Vallecano in today’s La Liga match.  Sure the two sides played out their 90-plus minutes.  But such was the domination of the European Champions against their tiny Madrid neighbours that the result was really never in doubt.

Carlo Ancelotti changed four players from the mid-week Champions League match at the Bernabeu against Liverpool, not that it truly mattered.  His side still featured two World Cup winners and six nominees for this year’s Ballon D’Or.

Back to the ninth minute, then, and a lovely play that saw Cristiano Ronaldo feed the ball to Toni Kroos at the left of the box, who then slotted it to a galloping Gareth Bale in front of goal.  One-nil Real.

Los Blancos almost doubled their score right away after a similar play; this time, Karim Benzema lanced the ball at James Rodríguez.  The Colombian then quickly turned and passed it to Ronaldo, whose shot went wayward.  The league’s top scorer missed but it was indicative of how Real are playing at the moment; their movement is so good, so fluid that they glide across the pitch, often in anticipation of passes that almost never miss their mark.

That’s not to say that Vallecano were pushovers.  Striker Albert Bueno was on his game, sending a thunderbolt in the 21st minute from 20 yards out that a shaky Keylor Navas struggled to deflect.   The men in red also took to attacking Real’s right flank where Nacho has been playing as a makeshift fullback.  Los Franjirrojos were pesky in the box on set pieces, and a couple moments of Real disarray looked like they would lead to a goal.  On the other end, Vallecano held their lines, and Cristian Álvarez played with awareness, even as the league leaders poured forward with pressure.

But after 40 minutes, that pressure got to the visitors as another cross made its way into the box.  Real centre back Sergio Ramos took the volley on his thigh and deflected the ball into the net, doubling the lead.  It was the defender’s 50th for Real Madrid, a stunning feat for a man whose job is to stop goals, not score them.

However, four minutes later, a bad throw by Navas into a group of Vallecano players caused James to panic with a back pass. Vallecano took advantage and Bueno made no mistake.  It was 2-1 for Madrid but, after a half where the visitors passed and moved as well as their hosts, Vallecano had every reason to feel confident at the break.

That confidence quickly melted away in the second half.   Vallecano seemed to wilt under the onslaught while the home side showed no signs of fatigue from a gruelling mid-week clash.  Real’s third goal in the 55th minute was sublime as Kroos curled the ball around two defenders and into the corner of the net.  Four minutes later, Benzema scored despite being glaringly offside.   Howls of protest from the Vallecano bench fell on deaf ears, although it could be considered payback for other egregious non-calls by the referee, most notably a tackle from behind on James in the first half.   Roberto Trashorras stopped the Colombian as he was about to break, but it generated neither a twitch nor gesture from the officials.

A late goal from Cristiano Ronaldo finished the evening with a 5-1 final score.  Los Nuevos Galacticos have now won 13 straight matches, 10 of those after scoring three goals or more.  The worrying part for their upcoming opponents is that after a post-Lisbon hangover, the champions appear to be picking up momentum.   With a relatively easy schedule over the next six weeks, and progression to the knockout round of the Champions League guaranteed, Madrid will want to keep up their league form before making an almost embarrassingly easy journey to nearby Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December.

Barcelona, Valencia and Atlético supporters might disagree at the moment.  But none of those teams can boast of the firepower that Real possesses. Like Chelsea in England, and Bayern Munich in Germany, Real could be another mega-club that wraps up its league title with plenty of time to spare.

Brent Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups G & H

Germans arrive
The last two groups could not be more opposite in quality and reputation.  While I don’t think Group G is the Group of Death, I do think that the four nations will have their work cut out for them.  Meanwhile, the young Belgians will have a chance to strut their stuff while the other three fight their way through.

GROUP G

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Much has been written in recent days about the injuries to Joachim Löw’s Germany.  Marco Reus tore his ankle just days before the tournament, and potential starters Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are all either playing with knocks or coming off recent injuries.  Luckily for Löw, he suffers from an embarrassment of riches.   Half of Der Mannschaft (tee hee, Mannschaft…  still makes me giggle) plays for either of Germany’s two biggest teams: Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.  The side also features Arsenal’s three prizes: veteran defender Per Mertesacker, as well as attacking midfielders Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, and Chelsea’s Andre Schürrle.  Löw’s Teutonic system (the newest rage in football, a melange of tiki-taka and counter-attacking) means all hands going forward, which explains why he only brought one striker: 36-year-old Miroslav Klose.  If Klose plays — and scores — Germany’s all-time record goal-scorer will tie Brazil’s Ronaldo for all-time World Cup goals (15).   SEMI-FINALS

Apparently, he's going to be okay...

Apparently, he’s going to be okay…

If there is one nation whose fans’ self-delusion rivals that of England’s, it’s Portugal‘s.  Every four years — two if you count the Euros — their fans believe they have what it takes to be world beaters.  But like England, they strive and fall short.  Portugal features a superstar player in Cristiano Ronaldo (just like Wayne Rooney) who is surrounded by a team of competent players that would never get a kick at the can in a side like Argentina or Brazil (just like England).  Portugal are also a nation whose FIFA ranking is absurdly high, boosted by a complicated formula (just like England).   Ronaldo has been fighting to be fit for this tournament.  If he performs like he does for Real Madrid, Portugal could go deep into quarter-final territory.  But their path is likely blocked by Belgium in the knockout stages and then Argentina.  ROUND OF 16

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Jürgen Klinsmann says he will sing both Germany’s and the U.S.A.‘s national anthems, when the two teams square off in their very last group game.  By then, Klinsmann will have a pretty good idea whether his last three years of effort have finally elevated the USA into the elite pantheon of football nations.   A look at his side would suggest it hasn’t yet.   I don’t want to write off the Stars and Stripes: they are well organized and physical.  They feature a handful of players who are class: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are great keepers; Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore have all cut their teeth in the Premier League, and Michael Bradley — despite his strange move to MLS — will be the lynchpin of Klinsmann’s side.  It’s a pity they are in a group with Germany and Portugal.  The building continues.  THREE AND OUT

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars' two superstars

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars’ two superstars

Everyone’s favourite in South Africa 2010, Ghana faces the plague of other successful African nations: inflated expectations.  The Black Stars’ midfield is still credible: Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will bolster the back line,  with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in front of them.  But no one will be surprised by the Ghanaians, and that’s unfortunate in a tough group like this.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP H 

Just in case you're wondering who Hazard plays for...

Just in case you’re wondering who Hazard plays for…

The return of Belgium to the biggest international stage has excited many soccer purists.  After finishing fourth at Mexico ’86, the Belgians were disappointing, bowing out early in the next three World Cups.  The country’s football association then changed the way it trained young players, and it also changed its relationship with its big clubs.  Now the the Red Devils are in their first international tournament since Japan/Korea ’02 and what a line-up.  Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet are two of the most sought-after young keepers in the world right now.  Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were easily Chelsea and Everton’s best players, respectively, while Kevin Mirallas was no slouch either, and Dries Marten scored 13 goals for Rafa Benitez’ Napoli.  Marc Wilmots is bringing only one true fullback, selecting seven centre backs to play in his defence.  What’s more, that defence is expected to press high up the pitch.  Even if they don’t go far, this team will get a couple another kick at the can at the Euros in France and then Russia’s World Cup. QUARTER-FINALS

A rare smile from Capello

A rare smile from Capello

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to rebuild itself to the former power of her predecessor (that’s because most of the USSR’s great players were Ukrainian.  Shhh).  Save for a third place finish in Euro 2008, they’ve failed to make it out of the group stage.  However, Euro 2012 was a good showcase for them.  Too bad this is a different side with a different manager.  Capello has made this team more defensive, as is his way.  Captain Roman Shirokov had to bow out to injury, and exciting young Alan Dzagoev is in the Italian gaffer’s bad books.  Still, this is a weak group, and they should be able to get through… unless they can’t stand the heat.  Literally.  ROUND OF 16

Slimani sees who's waiting if they finish second...

Slimani sees who’s waiting if they finish second…

Algeria are currently the highest-ranked team in Africa right now, due in part to a new philosophy brought in by manager,Vahid Halilhodžić.  Most of his players are young men who were born in France but chose to play in the country of their parents’ birth, and most of them are bench players in the Spanish, French and English leagues.  One exception is Islam Slimani, who scored 10 goals in 31 appearances for Sporting Lisbon; another is Sofiane Feghouli who regularly starts for Valencia.  Anything has to be an improvement over the boooring football played in South Africa (ask England fans), but Algeria still have to grow.  THREE AND OUT

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

South Korea have also done a 180 with their tactics, after Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo made them more technical, with less kick-and-run and more passing.   British football fans will be familiar with Ki Sung-yeung, who was bought from Celtic by Swansea City, in a move that broke the Welsh team’s transfer record; he then spent this season on loan at Sunderland.   Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min is probably S. Korea’s best player, which leaves a smattering of bit players in the Bundesliga, Prem and Asian leagues.   You want the Koreans to replicate the success they had at their own World Cup in 2002, but they won’t.  THREE AND OUT

 Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: The Bracket

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Weekend 10: The Misery of Others

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow

My Mum always taught me not to revel in the misfortune of others, that it could be me getting the bad end of the stick.  Then my French-Canadian father taught me the age-old tradition of dancing gleefully on your enemies’ missteps.  Vive le Schadenfreude!!

1) Manchester United’s Unconvincing season of Invincibility has come to an end, after the Mancs lost 2-1 at Molineux to the league’s last-place team.  United has had this annoying habit of grasping points from the jaws of defeat…. instead they were left grasping their ankles on the weekend.  The loss meant the title race would have been broken wide open except…

2) Arsenal blew a 4-0 lead at Newcastle United.  The Magpies were supposed to be distraught over the loss of Prince Andrew, and probably were after conceding three goals in the first 10 minutes.  But then they remembered that Arsenal’s defence is pants, and let Joey Barton chew at the Gooners’ ankles.  But Arsenal were not alone in their misery because…

3) Chelsea thought they were making a massive move of football irony, playing newly-acquired Fernando Torres against his former club.  But the aging — and fading — champions were bereft of ideas against Liverpool’s back five, losing 1-0.  Three centrebacks! Two wingbacks! One of them is Glen Johnson! And he’s cut his hair AND he’s playing on the left!  It must have been confusing for the old buggers.

It hurts right heeeeeerrreeee...

4) Torres looked like a high school freshman who couldn’t find his first class.   This particular John Hughes movie saw Jamie Carragher starring as the school bully, taking the ball — and lunch money — away from the Spaniard, who thought he was joining the gifted programme, but instead accidentally showed up at remedial gym class.

5) Speaking of audacious debuts, El-Hadji Diouf appeared in his first Old Firm game, less than a week after joining Rangers on loan.  Never a favourite with the green side of Glasgow, The Human Camel was the subject of constant taunting by the Bhoys. Celtic captain Scott Brown received a yellow card for his efforts, calling it “the best booking I’ve had in my life.”

6) Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley says he will freeze ticket prices for the next 10 years.  A club spokesperson says, “We know these are tough times for everyone so we’re trying to do all we can for the fans. Mike is fully on board with this… it is a good way of showing commitment back to the fans… ”

In the words of Homer Simpson, “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen…”

Um, doctor, it's my, er...

7) Schteve McClaren has lost his job at VfL Wolfsburg, after the Bundesliga team only won one match in the last 12.  But rumours abounded that McClaren was really turfed by a faux pas.  Ever the cunning linguist, McClaren was keen to show off what he learned from his German Made Easy cassettes, but then answered a question auf Deutsch about squad formation by mistakenly threatening the “annexation” of the owner’s wife…

8 ) Fabio Capello’s policy follows his predecessors: pick a player for their badge rather than their form.  A hugely slumping Wayne Rooney is getting a game against Denmark, as is Carlton Cole.  Of course, players like Blackpool’s DJ Campbell and Bolton’s Kevin Davies have more goals than them this season, but England managers have never been ones to let success get in the way…

9) West Brom fired manager Roberto Di Matteo after a run of bad results.  No doubt the newly-promoted team will replace him with a gaffer comparable to their other talismanic figures, like Bryan Robson and Gary Megson.  Hey, Roy Hodgson’s available!

10) Cristiano Ronaldo is still a horse’s arse… and I’m not the only one who thinks so

Brent Lanthier

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The Weekend 10: “Isms”

Hey Gerard, why the long face?

1) Pessimism: Is there something about being an ex-Liverpool manager that makes you whingy? Is it advanced age? My God, will someone tell Gerard HoullierRafa Benitez, and Roy Hodgson to stop thinking the football world is out to get them?

2) Alcoholism: Getting up to watching Premier League games on Saturday/Sunday is getting harder as my liver gets older… less Ales, more Rails, methinks… Maybe I’ll just start hanging out with Dennis Bergkamp

3) Racism: Fiorentina must have missed their Sunday morning caffe as they drew to Paolo DiCanio con Lecce.  I wonder how DiCanio and Fiorentina boss Sinisa Mihajlovic greeted each other after the match. Of course, Mihajlovic isn’t racist: everyone else is

4) Antagonism: Maybe the sputtering Viola are missing bad boy striker Adrian Mutu. The Romanian has been banned from the team after an alleged training ground confrontation.  Mutu denies it was with manager Mihajlovic, asking how he could he fight a man twice his size. Ummm… this is how

5) Sexism: And not even the clever kind!  The “Wait a second, the mics were on?!?!” kind…

6) Skepticism: Manchester Citeh are willing to let Shaun Wright-Phillips go for free, because they can’t find anyone who’ll pay to take on his 65-thousand-quid-a-week salary.  His agent say five teams are interested in SWP joining their team. If his negotating skills are anything like SWP’s game, he’ll probably just run all over England without actually making contact with any teams…

7) Dwarfism: ‘Arry Redknapp was robbed in Madrid when a gang of six men started pulling on his pant legs and availing themselves of the contents of his pockets.  However, Jermain Defoe managed to stay lodged against ‘Arry’s thigh, fast asleep…

8 ) Fallibilism: Speaking of Madrid, Real manager Lord Valdemorte has refused to commit his future to the club.  Ahhhh. Mourinho leaves Inter for Real… and then departs after a season. Benitez leaves Liverpool for Inter… and then he’s out after half-a-season.  Hodgson leaves Fulham for Liverpool… and then, well… Grass is greener and all that…

9) Infantilism: Cristiano Ronaldo says that of course, he changes diapers.  I had to read further into this article to find out they weren’t his own….

Hey Ruud, why the… oh never mind…

10)  Equestrianism: Hamburg have rejected a Real Madrid request to bring Ruud Van Nistlerooy back to the Bernabeu.  It appears Der Rothosen will ride out the Dutchman’s contract before putting him out to pasture….

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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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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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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