Tag Archives: italy

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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Europe’s Poor Performance… and Other Useless Stats

Ronaldo_2956126bThe major story lines leading up to this World Cup were all about things that had little or nothing to do with football.  Faulty or incomplete stadiums, paltry labour conditions, a populace acting as unhappy hosts, the ever-present whispers of bribes and corruption… this is how we talked about Brazil.

Two weeks into the tournament, however, and the story is very much about the game itself.   Wide-open play has meant a treasure chest of goals, the most ever for the group stage.  Out of the 48 matches so far, only eight of them have been draws, and only five of those have been nil-nil.  Meanwhile, there have been a lot of shutouts (almost half of the matches) but only 13 games have been either 0-0 or 1-0 finals.  For this writer anyway, this has been the best World Cup since France ’98.

However, several European nations might disagree with me.   Out of the 13 UEFA teams in the tournament, only the Netherlands, Greece (a first for Ethniki), Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland are going to the Group of 16.   For the second World Cup in a row, less than half of the European teams are progressing.  Is this because the former colonial powers can’t play away from their home continent? Maybe… but the European influence has been declining for some time.

If you take the percentage of total participants in each tournament* allocated to UEFA (in 2010, that was 13/32 or 40.625%) and multiply it by the percentage of European teams that make the knockout round (again in 2010, it was 6/16 or 37.5%), you can — imperfectly — see well how the confederation performs.

There are a couple of trends that emerge.  First of all, the number of UEFA spots have pretty much stayed the same, with one or two additions or subtractions.  But as the tournament has expanded, this has meant the Europeans’ share of World Cup berths has declined.  Nothing shocking here.

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

What is changing is who are winning the knockout berths.  At least three CONMEBOL teams have qualified for the next round in three out of the last five tournaments; they only got two spots in 1994 and 2002, and Brazil won both of those anyway (FYI the Brazilians have only missed the knockout round once, in 1966… between World Cup victories in 1962 and 1970).   Last tournament, two CONCACAF teams reached the knockout stage; this year, there are three.  For the first time ever, two African teams have reached the Group of 16 in 2014.

The reason for the European decline are fuzzy.  Some blame the flood of foreign players — particularly South Americans — into the big European leagues, pushing home-grown players aside and making big clubs less likely to develop their own youngsters.  Others say European players lack the desire to achieve greatness for country, because they are getting paid so much by their clubs.

However, it could all back to simple maths.  The change starts to be noticeable in Mexico’s 1986 World Cup.  João Havelange had won the FIFA presidency in 1974 on promises to let more developing nations into the tournament.   Twelve years later, Morocco was the first African Nation to qualify for the knockout round along with hosts, Mexico.  It was the first time two teams from one of the “other” confederations made it through with the big boys.   Since then, both CAF and CONCACAF have had at least one team in the elimination rounds, and CONMEBOL get at least 50 percent of its teams into the knockouts.

Capello

Capello thinks about how to spend his millions

What is more interesting is who is out.  The platinum generation of Spanish footballers finally ran out of currency, dropping out at the group stage for the first time since 1998.  Their Euro 2012 final opponents, Italy, missed two successive knockout rounds for the first time since the 1960’s.   The “golden generations” of Portugal and England both finally sputtered out.   Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia still have far to go to match the prowess of their Yugoslavian predecessors.  Russia may be rethinking Fabio Capello’s £6.7M annual salary… although the gaffer claims he did his job by getting the side into the tournament for the first time in 12 years.  In fairness to Capello, he didn’t have his talisman, Roman Shirokov.  Imagine if Óscar Tabárez’ Uruguay had to play with Luis Suarez… oh right.

Some caveats:

– like Brazil in ’94 and ’02, Spain won in 2010 despite a record-low representation by European teams.  However, the other three tournaments that had a low knockout representation by Europe went to South American sides: 1950, 1970, and 2002.

– a more likely determinate of World Cup success is tournament location.  If it’s in Europe, a UEFA team will likely win the whole thing.  If not, look to CONMEBOL.  The only exceptions are South Africa 2010 for Europe and Sweden 1958 for South America (where UEFA had seven of eight playoff births but Brazil still won).

– the set up of this year’s tournament tree means that only one of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay will advance to the semi-finals, while the Europeans could still end up having six teams in the quarter-finals.

Brent P. Lanthier

*Only post-war World Cups. The three tournaments before 1950 had no group stage, and were straight knockout competitions.

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Pirlo does an Italian Job on England, Costa Rica’s rich rewards

Italy winsAs is the way with these things, I made my way to the pub hours before the England kick-off, because I wanted to be sure of a seat and a clear line of sight.  However just as I walked in and turned towards the screen, Joel Campbell chested the ball and then tied the game up for Costa Rica against Uruguay.  I had just enough time to order my drink when they did it again, this time it was Óscar Duarte (who was starting in place of Johnny Acosta).  2-1 Costa Rica… are you kidding me?

Costa Rica means "Rich Coast".  Just sayin'...

Costa Rica means “Rich Coast”. Just sayin’…

Uruguay badly missed Luis Suárez, who sat to rest from meniscus surgery.  Lucky us.  Uruguay looked ordinary and their defenders are terrible.  Throw in a bone-headed tackle from Maxi Pereira to earn him the red, and Uruguay look like they are in trouble.  Costa Rica 3-1 Uruguay

So a couple of bevvies to warm up…  and then it was England vs. Italy.   It wasn’t at all embarrassing when Ginger Kev and I were so excited by Sterling’s blast into the side netting that he jumped into my arms.  But hey, the BBC put up the score at 1-0 so we weren’t the only ones.   Then came the Claudio Marchisio goal.  Andrea Pirlo’s dummy made me think of when you see a gorgeous girl, and then you find out she has a boyfriend.  A boyfriend who is better looking, richer and drives a better car.  That kind of vision and nonchalance is evidence of an incredible talent…  and so it was 1-nil Italy.

Stevie G in a midfield battle with Serpico

Stevie G in a midfield battle with Serpico

Wayne Rooney was once again a defensive liability, not providing the cover he needed down the left-hand side.  Leighton Baines and Glen Johnson were playing up so high, they were effectively wingers… but Matteo Darmian and Giorgio Chiellini (as a make-shift fullback) were giving them headaches.  Rooney doesn’t play well with others, but all was almost forgiven on the Daniel Sturridge goal.   Raheem Sterling (who had a fantastic game) picked out Wazza’s run, who in turn put a perfect cross through the box for the Liverpool striker to finish off.  However, Italy would counter with what was basically a mirror image of the goal (Darmian’s cross in front of the box for Mario Balotelli on the far post)… and that was that.  Italy 2-1 England

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups C & D

England weepsDespite what the Germans, Portuguese, Americans and Ghanians believe, Group D is this World Cup’s real Group of Death.   But sometimes an equally balanced group of lower-ranked nations can also make it a challenge to predict how they’ll finish.  That would be Group C.

"Er, Falcao? No lo se..."

“Er, Falcao? No lo se…”

GROUP C
The loss of Radamel Falcao is significant for Colombia… but not unexpected.  His debut season for Monaco was truncated by injury, and even in January we knew that he might not make it. His goal-scoring will be missed, but it’s not a death blow to this talented team.  AC Milan midfielder (and Manchester United target) Cristián Zapata and team captain Mario Yepes will marshal a solid backline.  Meanwhile an offence featuring James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado, Fredy Guarín, Carlos Bacca and Adrián Ramos is nothing to scoff at.  Throw in a tournament in their home continent, and the Colombianos could go far.  QUARTER-FINALISTS

"You think your name's long?!?"

“You think your name’s long?!?”

Greece‘s style of play is no mystery: defend, defend, defend.  But yet it is still tough to pick whether Ethniki will frustrate their way into the knockout rounds, or they will simply run out of ideas should they go down in the game.  Lots of familiar faces return, including elderly captain Giorgos Karagounis, who played a total of 14 games for Fulham this season; Kostas Mitroglu played a solitary game for the same club.  Of course, the star of the side is a defender: 25-year-old Sokratis Papastathopoulos.  But the Dortmund defender may not be sufficient to survive the pressure of a Colombia or Ivory Coast.  Even if they get everyone behind the ball and grind out three draws, it still won’t be enough.  THREE AND OUT

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

Last shot at love and glory for Drogba?

The Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) is the anti-Greece, a team top-heavy with offensive talent but lacking a credible back line.  Like many other nations,  it has seen its golden generation shine and fade.  Most of the old faces are there.  Kolo Touré is back, but a forgettable season with Liverpool shows the depths of his decline.  Didier Zokora’s best days are also behind him.  Sol Bamba didn’t play a single game of competitive club football this season.  Up front shows more promise.  Cheick Tioté should provide defensive cover and Yaya Touré is coming off a blinder of a season… which may not matter if he arrives in Brazil nursing an injury.   Salomon Kalou and Gervinho will play up the wings, and the sole striker position should be filled by Les Éléphants‘ talisman, Didier Drogba.  But Wilfried Bony’s satisfying first season in the Prem may earn the Swansea City man the right to play up front instead.   This is a big physical team who will be able to push back against the stifling Greeks and the technically gifted, but smaller, Japanese side.   ROUND OF 16

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz... can he do the same for country?

Okazaki scored bunches for Mainz… can he do the same for country?

Ah yes, the enigma that is Japan.  They made it to the knockout phase in South Africa, and lost on kicks to Paraguay, but detractors say their path was weak.  Both Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki are back: Honda is fresh off his debut season in Europe, and Okazaki rewarded his new club, Mainz, with a 15 goals.  But too many questions remain on whether Japan can compete with the other nations in this group.  THREE AND OUT

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool... and Azzurri skill.

Pirlo: the epitome of Italian cool… and Azzurri skill.

GROUP D
Never, EVER, count Italy out… except in 2010 when they finished last in their group, drawing their first two games (in very Italian style) and then belatedly realizing that Slovenia weren’t a walk in the park.   That’s not going to happen this time.  Cesare Prandelli has built this team around Andrea Pirlo, including using Juventus-like tactics.  That includes Juve boss Antonio Conte’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, even using La Vecchia‘s three centre backs: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.   Daniele De Rossi will patrol the back field while PSG’s Thiago Motta will join Pirlo in the middle.  A front line could consist of new Dortmund signing Ciro Immobile, his former strike partner at Torino, Alessio Cerci, and of course, the irascible Mario Balotelli.  This isn’t your father’s Azzurri… and that’s alright.   QUARTER-FINALISTS

Whither Suarez?

Whither Suarez?

Here’s where things get tough. Anyone who says Luis Suárez didn’t have a season for the ages is lying or delusional.  Suárez is an influencer, a man whose temperament and skill can both influence matches in equal measure. He is also struggling with injury, desperately trying to get fit in time to play for Uruguay on South American soil. Despite being a semi-finalist in South Africa (albeit due to an extremely dodgy hand ball and subsequent missed penalty), this is a nation in decline, football-wise. Diego Godín is coming off a miracle season with Atlético Madrid, as is Cristían Rodriguez, and Maxi Pereira was outstanding in 2010.  But team captain Diego Lugano doesn’t even have a club (he was released by West Brom, for God’s sake), and Diego Forlán is plying his trade in the J-League.   Of course, Edinson Cavani is still in the side, and he is still a world class player.  But Suárez is Uruguay’s X-Factor.  HEALTHY SUÁREZ: ROUND OF 16; NO SUÁREZ: THREE AND OUT

England has nothing to lose... except three matches.

England has nothing to lose… except three matches.

England, on the other hand, have no such game changer, nor do they have many expectations… despite what they say in public.  The English press and supporters famously make hand-wringing into an art form, and this time should be no different.  But despite having a squad based entirely in the Premier League (save Celtic keeper Fraser Forster), this is not a squad of superstars.  It is a roster of talented young players assembled by Roy Hodgson who barely have the burden of reputation to contend with.  Yes, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are there.   But some of the Prem’s most exciting youngsters will get a run out; some of them will even start.   Expect The Three Lions to play like Liverpool 2.0:  pacey and pass-y going forward, but a little bit suspect at the back.  They could do really well, or they could go home after four-and-half hours.  Much will depend on how the other teams in this group react to them.   SEE ABOVE: ROUND OF 16, OR THREE AND OUT

Sing when you're winning

Sing when you’re winning

Costa Rica: No Bryan Oviedo, Bryan Ruiz had a season to forget, and young Joel Campbell spent the year on the football equivalent of a caravan trip around Europe.   Most of the other squad members ply their trade in lesser leagues in Europe and North America.   The bookies have the Ticos dead last for odds on winning the World Cup.  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Groups E & F

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Llorente Gets His Wish

Fernando-Llorente

Fernando Llorente started.  Fernando Llorente scored.  Happy now?

So much ink/cyberspace has been dedicated to the saga surrounding the Basque player’s prolonged transfer from Athletic Bilbao to Juventus.  Llorente demanded a move after the 2012 Europa League final, didn’t get it, and then paid the price with Marcelo Bielsa starting him on the bench for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Juventus fans and media types demanded that the club sign him, saying they needed more forwards.  They got their wish on July 1st.  But then the clamouring changed in tone, from “Where is Llorente?” to “Why isn’t Llorente playing?”.  Before Sunday, his only competitive appearance in the Bianconeri shirt was seeing out the clock for a couple minutes at Sampdoria.

So the inevitable reaction from the European press is that Llorente is unhappy, that he is already looking towards England in January.   But on Sunday, the Number 14 appeared on both the team-sheet and the score-sheet.  The response from the press and the fanzines? Llorente played well, but the rest of the side “needs work”.

The hype that surrounds a new arrival at big clubs almost always takes on a life of its own.   The longer the transfer is drawn out, the greater the myth that accompanies the incoming player.  In reality, Llorente needs Juventus more than Juventus needs him.

Before last season’s drama in Bilbao, Llorente was the go-to guy at his ancestral club, their top scorer for five straight seasons.  But Llorente only broke the 20-goal mark in two of those campaigns (including that Europa league final season).  He’s thrice been in La Liga’s top 10 scorers, coming in at 9th, 5th and 6th in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively.  If you were to find an English comparison, Llorente is the Spanish Emmanuel Adebayor: a guy who can be lethal when he wants, but not someone to build your whole team around.  Since he’s left, Bilbao have had no problem finding an adequate replacement, bringing in another Basque player (of course), Aritz Aduriz from Valencia.

arturo-vidal-juvenus-300x159

Scoring comes to Vidal so soon…

Despite the common wisdom, Juventus have been finding the back of the net.  Last season, they finished their Serie A campaign with the third-most goals in the league, only two behind high-flying Napoli.  In the Champions League, by the end of the Round of 16, only Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had scored more goals.  No one had a better plus-minus, but critics point to the quarter-final matches against Bayern Munich, when they were outscored 4-0 over two legs.  This is the same Bayern that put seven unanswered goals past mighty Barcelona in the following round.

To say that Juventus needs strikers is to misunderstand how Antonio Conte has set up his team.   The manager likes to play a 3-5-2 (closer to a 3-5-1-1), which means that the midfielders are the stars of the show.  It’s hard to argue with a group that could be the best in Europe: Andrea Pirlo quarterbacking the likes of Arturo Vidal,  Kwadwo Asamoah, Stephan Liechsteiner, and Paul Pogba through the middle.   It allows them to remain disciplined defensively, while trying to keep possession until they can open up the pitch for the forwards.

Those attacking players haven’t been idle either.  They may get outshone individually by, say, Vidal or Pirlo, but they have done their part.  If someone has the right to be miffed, it’s Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella.  Normally slotted in the Number 10 role, the pair have been displaced by the club’s other high-profile signing, Carlos Tevez.   The energetic Argentine has already scored four in six matches, including that beauty on the weekend.

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Vucinic injury opened the door for Llorente

Conte has probably waited this long to start Llorente because the player simply hadn’t appeared that much over the last 15 months.  Conte also had no reason to displace Mirko Vucinic up front until now.  The Montenergrin injured himself on international duty and Conte is easing him back in, using him to replace Llorente in the 69th.

Llorente should be a good foot soldier for the Italian champions.  He will have to compete for his job with Vucinic, but if he gets the minutes, he should contribute to the club’s goal count as they defend their title.  What he will not be is a game changer, the way that Tevez can take control of a match.

In Bilbao, Llorente was the proverbial big-fish-in-a-smallish-pond.  But now he’s in a different league, in the metaphorical as well as the geographical sense.  So if he gets a game here and there, and happens to notch a few goals, we should all be happy for the man who finally got his wish… and for the fans and pundits who got theirs as well.

Brent P. Lanthier

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by | September 24, 2013 · 8:00 am

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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Arrivederci Italia


For the first time since 1974, Italy has crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage, losing a 3-2 decision to Slovakia today to finish bottom of Group F, a shocking fall for the defending champion Azzurri. Coach Marcello Lippi said his team “played with fear in their legs and their hearts” throughout their brief stay at the tournament, perhaps never more than today when, for long stretches, Slovakia bossed the game and created the bulk of the chances.

This might have been the most dramatic game at the World Cup so far, with the stakes so high for both teams and the goals coming thick and fast in the final 10 minutes. But aging Italy, hampered by the loss of  goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and without Andrea Pirlo for the first two matches, never really woke up until then, and it cost them even worse than failing to beat New Zealand in their previous match. Slovakia’s players, notably the keeper, were guilty of some serious time wasting in the dying moments, with the match threatening to drag on longer than a certain Wimbledon epic, but they held on for a famous win.

As for the Kiwis, they pulled off another draw, their third in as many matches. For a team that was expected to be cannon fodder at this World Cup, New Zealand can hold their heads high, but they’re still packing their bags after a 0-0 snoozer against Paraguay, with the South Americans moving on.

The late games saw the Netherlands outclass Cameroon 2-1, the first time a Dutch team has won all three group stage matches at the World Cup (and extending an unbeaten streak that began with an undefeated qualifying campaign). Arjen Robben returned to the Dutch team after missing victories over Denmark and Japan. On the other side, Paul LeGuen resigned as coach of the Indomitable Lions after losing all three matches and could be heading Down Under for his next job.

Finally, Japan bent a pair of free kicks into the Danish net and, after conceding a second-half penalty, sealed it with a late third goal to earn a 3-1 win that dumped Denmark out. Even if their continent won’t be cheering for them, Japan are moving on, and doing so for the first time on foreign soil.

With all eyes focussed on South Africa, this seemed a good time for Chelsea to hand Nicolas Anelka a contract extension. Wonder whether there’s a behaviour clause? Does Stamford Bridge have a swear jar?

So, the Netherlands take on upstart Slovakia on Monday, with Paraguay taking on the Japanese on Tuesday, with just four places left in the round of 16.

Ian Harrison

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