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Pieces of Eight: Why Spain is So Money and Other Euro Observations

Well that was fun.  Lots of goals, an upset or two, some behind-the-scenes drama… and for what? At the end of three weeks, the new Champions are the same as the old Champions.  The footballing universe is balanced and unsullied, and in six weeks, we can go back to watching club football.  In the meantime, enjoy my little observations about the highlight of the summer.  Don’t you dare mention the Olympics!!!

1) This Spanish side may be the best international side ever.  Duh.
Euro.  World Cup.  Euro.  Nineteen players in the side have now won both tournaments.  More than half of those players will still be under 30 by the time they reach Rio in two years time (not to mention next year’s Confederations Cup).  An average possession rate of at least 65%.  A side that has gone 646 minutes without conceding a goal in a knock-out match.  This is more than a “Golden Generation”;  this is utter and complete dominance.

2) Buffon and Pirlo are studs.
Despite every indication that they would do the opposite, the Italians (the Italians?) took the game to Spain, trying to play offensive and open-pitch football (seriously, the Italians?!?).  Prandelli’s tactics allowed the world to see Andrea Pirlo’s incredible play-making abilities. Pirlo is a big reason why Juventus won the Scudetto this season, and AC Milan (his old team) didn’t.   Meanwhile, Buffon faced a barrage of attempts, especially in the final’s second half. When the winners were getting their medals, Buffon was stoic in defeat.

Prandelli: “Balotelli has to learn to accept defeat.”

3) Balotelli needs to grow up.
He may have put on a clinic against ze Germans… but Mario is still a super baby.  He stormed off the pitch after Italy lost against the Spaniards and was the last person to receive his medal.  That’s too bad because he had an exemplary tournament.   Colourful players with heaps of talent have always made the game more interesting…. but Balotelli can be a detriment to his team(s).  Luckily for both Italy and Manchester City, his behaviour may mellow with time.  Witness another former petulant son in…

4) Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’s an incredible player… he just needs a team.
Like the Italians, the Portuguese weren’t expected to do much.   Critics assumed that Ronaldo would once again be unable to replicate his club form for A Seleccao.  But not only did Ronaldo have a great tournament, he showed tremendous un-Ronaldo-like restraint as teams gave him a kicking.   Old Ronaldo would have flopped around like a fish.   New Ronaldo recorded the most shots in the tournament.   Too bad that he also hit the wood work more than any other player… and let’s not even mention the penalty shot that never was.

5) The end of the Van Marwijk era means the end of the Van Bommel era, et al.  Praise Cheebus.
The Dutch gaffer opted for pretty much the same side as he used in the World Cup. Oops.

Before the tournament even began, the players exhibited symptoms of Dutch Disease: an in-fighting both in and out of the public spotlight that hobbled everyone. Their performance on the pitch reflected the lack of unity and tactics.  One hopes that it wasn’t nepotism that led Van Marwijk to start his over-the-hill son-in-law Mark Van Bommel.  The captain sums up all that’s wrong with the Oranje:  old, dirty, and petulant.  A mid-tournament rebellion in the dressing room, followed by an early exit,would make the Dutch this year’s France, except that…

6) France is this year’s France.
After a disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa, you’d think Les Tricoloures would avoid their petty squabbles and unite under Laurent Blanc. Malheureusement, it was not to be. Reports of a dressing room bust-up after losing to Sweden in their final group-stage match was followed by Samir Nasri’s unseemly outburst towards a reporter. A tidy loss to the eventual champions meant the end of another tournament… and the dismissal of another manager.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… Someone tell the French players.

The other sad Mario…

7) Das Jahr der Schrecken for Bayern Munich players.
What a season for the eight men out who play for both the German national team and Bayern Munich.  Bayern suffered a double domestic loss to Borussia Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and the DKB-Pokal, followed by a baffling defeat at Chelsea’s hands at home in the Champions League.  Top that off with Germany’s semi-final loss to unfancied Italy and they face a tough summer staring into their schnitzel.  Mario Gomez even lost out on the Euro Golden Boot because he tied Fernando Torres in goals and assists, but took more minutes to do it!  Scheisse!

8) England, thanks for coming out.
Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard played well.  Surprisingly, so did John Terry.  Andy Carroll scored the same amount of goals as Wayne Rooney, but played 50 less minutes.  Theo Walcott had a game to remember.  Now let’s never mention this again.

Brent Lanthier

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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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Carroll: Bad Bargain, Good Buy

The Geordie and the General

Alright, now that the dust has settled — and the incredulity has been reduced to simple head-shaking — let’s get this out of the way: Andy Carroll is not worth £35 million right now.  He’s 22 years old, he has only ever scored 34 goals at the senior level, and is carrying a thigh injury.  He has one England cap.  One.  And he has already been in the papers several times for the wrong reasons.

That doesn’t make him a bad buy.

The long-and-short of it was that Liverpool’s situation was dire.  Last year’s mediocre campaign became the millstone for this year’s disaster.  The Reds are down 10 points from this time last year, a season that saw Liverpool plummet 23 points from their almost-title winning finish in 2009. (This is the point where you can hear the collective snorts from the crimson side of Manchester).  It’s because they couldn’t score. For all intents and purposes, Liverpool had no strikers.

Over the last 10 seasons, Liverpool averaged about 62 goals a season in the Prem. In the early part of the decade, a peaking Michael Owen shouldered much of the load. When he started to get hurt, Liverpool’s goal totals slumped and so did their form.  After he left for sunny Spain, other players managed to fill in the gaps, and Rafael Benitez’ stingy formations meant Liverpool were always contenders.

Then Fernando Torres arrived and the goals started to come again.  In the 2008-09 EPL season, Liverpool scored 77 goals… their highest total since they were winning the League. (In fact, they came two goals away from doing it that season. If Liverpool had scored a goal in two of their drawn games, they would have tied United on points, but pipped them to the title on superior goal difference).

Torres brought the goals — and so did mighty midfielder Steven Gerrard.  But the team began to rely too much on the pair.  An infuriating tinkerman early on, Benitez eventually built his formation around Torres and Gerrard, neglecting the development of other forwards.

Both players wanted to play all the time: Premier League, Champions League, cup ties.  The result was that Torres and Gerrard got hurt… a lot.  Combine that with the departure of defensive keystones Xavi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, and the team fell into shambles.

Fast forward to this month.  The team is trending to top out at 50 goals this season.  Top that with an atrocious goals-against and they are looking at a paltry +3 goal difference.  That would almost certainly rule them out of the lucrative Champions League again… and maybe even the Europa League.

Unhappy Torres

So when the transfer window was closing, an unhappy  Torres handed in his transfer request. He wanted to play in Europe. He wants to win titles (which he never did on Merseyside.  Not one piece of silverware.).  The team’s shiny new owners realized they had both an opportunity and a dilemma. Free-wheeling Chelski was willing to pay top dollar for the Spaniard… but that would have left the Reds without a paddle, in the popular parlance.  If Torres goes, there is no one.  The cupboard is bare.

Enter Newcastle United.  The perfidious Mike Ashley had to have known what Liverpool were doing with Torres. He is simply desperate for cash so he pounced, jacking up Carroll’s price.  The overlords of Anfield paid and made the young Geordie the most expensive British player ever.

He ain't pretty, he just looks that way...

The reality is it would have been foolish not to take him.  Liverpool are replacing Torres with England’s best striker this season. Who has more goals? Not Wayne Rooney, the man who was considered to be among the best in the world.  Not Peter Crouch or Jermaine Defoe or Emile Heskey.  In fact, no England player has found the back of the net this season as much as Carroll — and he hasn’t played since Christmas.

Carroll is not a pretty goal scorer.  He doesn’t have Rooney’s skill on the ball.  But he’s tall like Crouch, big and strong like Heskey and heads the ball like Tim Cahill… only he doesn’t have to jump.

Instead of Joey Barton or Kevin Nolan to feed him the ball, he now has Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez (don’t laugh, he’s come along this season!) and Luis Suarez.  That last one could be telling.  There are big hopes that Suarez and Carroll could be the new Owen and Heskey (except a Heskey that actually scores).

Finally — and this is important — he is only 22-years-old.  He will learn the game — and learn discipline — from Dalglish, one of the finest strikers to ever play the English game.

The club paid far, far too much for him.  I admit that, even with my red-tinted glasses on.  But Andy Carroll could end up being the finest money that Liverpool ever threw away.

Brent Lanthier

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Honours even on Derby Day

Ask any fan what date they eye up first when the new fixture list comes out, and they’ll almost certainly mention the local derby. Them down the road, the enemy, the old firm, and references perhaps too colourful for this article. Whatever you call them, it’s the meeting fans dread the most, yet also relish with such anticipation.

It’s a surreal experience to feel so nervous about something you also look forward to. More than anything, one thought passes through your mind: “I’ll take losing to anyone all season, even not winning a single trophy; just don’t let us lose to them.”

Sunday’s three Premier League derbies did not disappoint. Though none of the six teams took maximum points, you can’t help but feel all concerned are mightily relieved. Despite Liverpool’s woeful second half performance, they can exhale with the knowledge they didn’t drop more points. Torres, masterful in the first period, went absent with Everton’s brute force in the second. It really was a game of two halves, lacking in style but full of substance.

Given the recent troubles at the Second City derby, the police demanded an unusually low crowd at St. Andrew’s. It didn’t contain problems though; flares and charging fans bought much drama to the occasion. As if it needed any more. Villa’s dominance paid off when they equalised with 15 minutes to go, hardly a score that will be considered for goal of the season. It was one, however, that balanced the books from an earlier scrappy goal from the Blues.

Even in the Northeast they couldn’t go home without some bad behaviour. The first half didn’t need a ball, both teams seemed just as happy to kick each other instead. A bruised Newcastle will feel hard done by to be robbed so late on by a lucky Sunderland.

So no one won the most important game of them all, but perhaps all concerned will feel better off than before hand. At least they didn’t lose.

Sam Saunders

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Number Crunching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Ferguson

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An Open Letter to Roy Hodgson

Woy rues the "walk on through the rain" bit of the song...

Dear Roy Hodgson,

Welcome to Anfield!  Sorry about the mess… hope it’s not a problem…

It’s only been two months but we noticed you’re already getting a bit snippy with the press. Perhaps your optimism has been dampened by the malaise of your players… and the fans… and the members of the board who don’t own team.

To be fair, Woy, it’s not been a good week for you. In seven days, you’ve lost to hated rivals Manchester United, and then to much-feared Northampton Town.  To top it off — on LFC’s first Saturday game of the season — the Reds put in such a lacklustre performance against Sunderland that the Kop went into a venti lather, extra-whipped, extra-foamy.

It hasn’t been a great start to the entire season either. Facing Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United in the first five Prem games can give any manager a bit of the “frownies”.  One has to wonder if bad results at the start of the season might send the team into a downward cycle of depression and self-loathing — just as Chelsea’s ridiculously easy start may have gone to their heads.  Perhaps you could have Kenny Daglish step in to give the boys a bit of a pep talk, eh?

You’ve also said you’re a bit concerned about the ownership situation.  Maybe you’ve realized that no one’s even come close to  Tom Hicks’ minimum bid for the team on eBay.  Or you could be miffed that he recently tried to pawn the players, stadium and team assets off just to pay the rent… because he’ll earn it back. You just have to trust him.

Conversely, you may be worried that Hicks and Gillet won’t make their debt deadline… meaning the Royal Bank of Scotland would own the team. Are you worried that the league would consider that a financial no-no and deducts points? Or are you worried that the club would be run by actual Scottish people? Hey, there’s King Kenny again, waving from his office… and he’s waiting for your call!

We can see how you’d be upset about losing points to administration. Let’s see: 6 minus 9… carry the “1”… a bit of a steep hill, no? If you listen closely, you can hear Wigan and West Ham fans laughing…

Look on the bright side: you are the manager of Liverpool FC, England’s most successful team! But now you’re miffed that the same media outlets that squeezed your cheeks and patted your bum — after you took little Fulham to the finals of that little tournament — are now reminding you that Liverpool has had its worst start in 57 years.  And they won’t stop.

But not to worry! You’ve got Steven Gerrard (when he’s not hurt), Fernando Torres (when he’s not hurt… or close to tears) and Joe Cole (when he’s not suspended… or hurt… or both). Just ask Stevie… this year, this is the year. He promises.

So turn that frown upside-down, and remember: it’s only three more months to go until the next transfer window. What could possibly go wrong between now and then?

Sincerely,
At The Rails

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Fergie’s Fantasy: The Dream Team

Lamps' hernia operation means no fantasy points

We are only five weeks into the season, but many fantasy managers are already thinking about using their “wild card” to start again from scratch (unless you’re like me, and you’ve already used it).

How else can you make up for mistakes, like thinking poor World Cup play by Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres wouldn’t carry over into the Premier league? Did you really think this is the year Cesc Fabregas stays healthy? How could you guess that Frank Lampard wouldn’t even rate as one of the three Chelsea players you should have in your line-up?

To help you in your search for the “best of the best”, here’s the top scoring players at each position so far. Without regard for the rules of the fantasy game — you can only have three players from any given club, and your salary cap wouldn’t allow you to afford all of the players below — I bring you the dream starting 11… (if you had to play by all the rules, it would be a “dream” team now would it?)

FORWARDS

Didier Drogba – Chelsea

As I mentioned, two of the most threatening strikers in the league — Rooney and Torres — are off to very slow starts. But last year’s Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba has picked up exactly where he left off, and thus is the Premier League’s most valuable fantasy point getter. He’s also the most expensive player in the league but I suggest you suck it up, pay his price, and make him your captain every week until he starts to slow down. Drogba is not only scoring goals, he’s also setting them up and taking the corners while Lampard has been injured. That makes him even more valuable.

Berba finally starts flying...

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United

On a team with Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, and new signing Javier Hernandez, Manchester United’s Bulgarian striker had to show some spark early on and he’s done just that. Witness how he single-handedly took apart Liverpool last week with a hat trick,  including a bicycle kick goal that will be a contender for goal of the year. With play like this, it will be impossible for Sir Alex Ferguson to keep him out of the lineup.

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City

This Argentinian bulldog is technically tied with Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll at this point… but I expect Carroll to fade and Tevez to come on even stronger. Man City have a wealth of striker options but Tevez seems to be the only one with any consistency right now. The fact that he’s regularly outperforming Rooney couldn’t be more annoying for United fans.

MIDFIELDERS

Florent Malouda – Chelsea

Here’s a player who has overcome his World Cup woes after playing for France. Malouda has shown an impressive scoring touch so far, and an obviously improved chemistry with his teammates after taking the bulk of last year getting used to life in the Premier League. I see no reason why his form would dip. A must-have purchase for all fantasy managers, as his price keeps going up.

Kalou on top... but for how long?

Salomon Kalou – Chelsea

Kalou is reaching the potential Chelsea thought he would have when they signed him. His four goals in five games is all the more impressive when you consider he only started two of those games. He could be a risky long-term prospect as I’m not sure he’ll start as often when Lampard comes back… if the rest of team stays healthy. But he’s on fire right now at a good price: he could be a strong short-term pick-up.

Nani – Manchester United

You are likely smarter than me anyway, but you are definitely smarter than me if you took Nani at the beginning of the season. With Valencia rounding into form at the end of last year, it appeared Nani might be a useful substitute. However, he’s now proving to be an indispensible supplier of crosses into the box for United and has the ability to score, given the chance. If another player brushes up against him, he goes down like he received an uppercut to the face, but there’s no fantasy deductions for that!

Theo Walcott – Arsenal

Gooners were ecstatic to see Walcott get off to a flying start with four goals in the first three games… especially since he’s never scored more than four in a whole season! His pace gives him the ability to score almost every time he gets the ball and some space to work in and now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. The only problem? He’s injured and it’s likely he’s won’t be back until sometime in October. Keep an eye on him when he returns as he could be worth a transfer into your squad if he keeps it up.

Defenders

Ashley Cole – Chelsea

The quantity of Chelsea players on this list is a bit annoying, but there’s nothing bad you can say about Cole’s performance this year. He’s made great runs down the left side for years, but now it seems those crosses always get to someone in blue who will put them in the back of the net. Cole is pricey, but he’s the top scoring defender in the league right now, so you get what you pay for.

Captain Schtupping has yet to face serious opposition

John Terry – Chelsea

I wouldn’t necessarily introduce him to my girlfriend, but it’s hard to do better in selecting a defender. Again, he’s expensive but you get what you pay for. Chelsea are likely to continue racking up clean sheets and Terry is virtually a constant presence on their back four.

Micah Richards – Manchester City

Richards has played every moment so far for Manchester City and has helped them keep two clean sheets, along with the occasional assist. You could also look at Nemanja Vidic from Man United or Alex from Chelsea, but Richards is a lot cheaper and is sure to play in every game.

Goalkeeper

Hart has only allowed two goal so far

Joe Hart – Manchester City

A big part of the reason Micah Richards is on this list is the amazing play of Joe Hart. He’s showing that he should have been the man for England in South Africa (i.e. he has yet to throw a ball into his own net). Hart has a bright future and his fantasy value is also only going to go up.

Scott Ferguson

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