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Brazilian Relief, Mexican Rain Dance

world cup opener

And so it begins… the hype, the glory, the parade of flags tied to foot-long plastic flag posts, perched on the partially-open windows of cars going by.

Brazil vs. Croatia

Neymar's team mates help him find his contact lens...

Neymar’s team mates help him find his contact lens…

After the requisite interpretative dance numbers, and some C-list celebrities singing their iTunes best-seller, the actual football got under way.  Brazil’s debut was testy-testy.  Marcelo looked liked he’d come home to find his flat ransacked after his own goal allowed Croatia to go up 1-0.  The Valtreni played very un-Croatia-like, sending the ball hither and thither, instead of trying to hold onto the ball in the middle of the pitch.  That barrage is what caused confusion in front of the Brazilian net, and now Croatia is on top.

But hang on, that’s not how the narrative’s supposed to go.  Enter Brazil’s front four, who pulled the Croatians onto the edges, allowing Neymar to find the space in the middle.  That lead-up to his first goal was a good piece of effort with each Brazilian player seeming to lose the ball before retaking it from their defender and eventually getting it to the young Barcelona man.  It was a nice string of play but frankly, Croatia’s keeper Pletikosa should have stopped it.  He might have saved the penalty as well, had Neymar’s blast not been so powerful, and he was definitely in position to save Oscar’s nice little poke… he was just too slow. 3-1 Brazil.

Mexico vs. Cameroon

Las gotas de lluvia caen sobre mi cabeza mucho

Las gotas de lluvia caen sobre mi cabeza mucho

The city of Natal gave us a nice look at the weather patterns of an equatorial country.  The rain fell in sheets as Mexico took on Cameroon.  Apparently, the players aren’t the only one with a case of nerves as the officials wrongly took three goals away from the Mexicans.  Giovani dos Santos was excellent in the number 10 role, outshining the central striker until the second half (Spurs fans thinking, “Where was that guy when he played for us?”).  GDS and Porto’s Hector Herrera linked up well; they were all over a disorganized Cameroonian side who looked like they didn’t even want to be there.  When the Africans did challenge, it was up the left (against Rodriguez and Aguilar, who are not the speediest of defenders) but the efforts tended to come to naught.   So it was left to the man left up front, Oribe Peralta, to finally break the deadlock.  Peralta started in place of Javier Hernandez, probably because he has now scored nine goals in his last seven games for Mexico, while Chicharito has had a season to forget.

Now Mexico faces Brazil in Fortaleza on Tuesday, while Cameroon takes on Croatia in the sticky air of Manaus the next day.   If Brazil still have the jitters, and Mexico can grab even a point, then El Tri are suddenly in the mix.  Meanwhile, the Cameroonians look disinterested right now, but the Croats may struggle in the rain forest’s oppressive heat.

Brent P. Lanthier

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups A & B

brazuca

It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself.  The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching.  You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year.  Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12.  Here’s At The Rail’s predictions.  I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.

GROUP A

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Can Neymar and Brazil live up to the hype?

Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing.  After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation).  But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots.   Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs).  Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari.  Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure.  CHAMPIONS

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

How far can Modric lead Croatia?

Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain.  Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days.  But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs.   They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again.  ROUND OF 16

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

It could be frustrating tourney for Chicharito

Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever.  Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day.  Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama.   The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch.  Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it.  THREE AND OUT

Wham, bam, thank you Sam...

Wham, bam, thank you Sam…

Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football.  At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions  had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute.  This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be.   No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago.   While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England.  Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues.  Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century.  That streak should remain intact.  THREE AND OUT.

 

GROUP B

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Nine of these 11 players have returned for the World Cup.

Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won.  But Spain are no ordinary side.  This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008.   Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down.  Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España.   Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever.  Period.  Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything.  They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil.  FINALIST.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores.  'Nuff said.

Sanchez: he runs, he scores. ‘Nuff said.

Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years.   Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.   Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts.  Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up.  This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round.   ROUND OF 16.

Oh sure, they're all friends NOW...

Oh sure, they’re all friends NOW…

A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves.  While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns.   Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke.  But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side.  Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig.  Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United.   But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other?  THREE AND OUT

Don't get too comfy, lads.

Don’t get too comfy, lads.

Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya.  But you are not going to make major inroads in this group.   FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you).  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five.  Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos.  Australia 2022!  THREE AND OUT

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Groups C & D  (Shocking, I know)

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Fergie’s Fantasy – Et Tu Rooney?

We're bloody sick of him, anyway...

First, as a fellow Ferguson, I’d like to declare my bias towards football’s greatest manager Sir Alex Ferguson (Ed. Note: For the love of Pete, give it a rest!)  Bias now declared, I would to say to Wayne Rooney… why? Why must you correct Sir Alex about your ankle injury? You know you are injured… you have been since late last season. Remember when you came back too early and ended one of your best seasons with a whimper? Remember when you were basically useless during the World Cup? Remember when you had ice on your ankle in a photo recently and were carted off the training ground this week on a stretcher? Yet, when Sir Alex tries to defend you by saying you aren’t scoring because you are injured, you say you are fine and you now say you want out.

So where does this leave me? I’m now the owner of an embarrassing Man United jersey with AIG on the front (you remember they planned to give employees millions in bonuses while getting billions from a government bailout) and Rooney on the back… who may end up at — of all places — Manchester City (can we have Carlos Tevez back then? Pretty please?).

Not since Wayne Gretzky left Canada for Los Angeles has a man named Wayne disappointed me so much. If this was a hand-written note, the words would be smudged with a few of my unsuccessfully repressed tears…

But back to my fantasy column. I think it goes without saying that, as a fantasy owner,  you need to get rid of Rooney now and never start him again. No player performs well under these kind of off-field distractions. You need only look at how average Cesc Fabregas has been this year for the Gunners as an example of what happens when a great footballer no longer wants to play for his team.

Top Performers

N'Zogbia: Hard to pronounce, hard to predict

The three big point getters from last week were Wigan’s Charles N’Zogbia with a pair of goals, Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez — also with two goals — and Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh, who had a brilliant goal along with an assist.

The best long-term bet of the bunch is Carlos Tevez. On a team filled with talent, he has carried the offence and is a huge reason why Man City are currently second in the table. That said, he may not be the best choice for this week. His manager is musing aloud that Tevez needs a rest. I suspect he doesn’t play in the Europa League game and is in this weekend… but you never know.

You also never know what you’ll get from Charles N’Zogbia. He is wildly inconsistent but has the skills to be on a much better team than Wigan (sorry Latic fans). His price is low enough that he is worth taking a chance on.

The best bet may actually be Chamakh. He is exactly what Arsenal has needed this year in the striker role: a talented player who will bury it, given the chance. Even when he isn’t scoring, he always looks dangerous.

Scott’s Subs:

I’ve been making these recommendations every week but I feel the need to somehow track whether the players I’m telling you to pick up are actually serving you well. From this week on, I’ll offer three subs a week and track them for five games versus a) the league average, and b) the players I suggest you take out. If I do very badly, I will pretend I never promised to do this.

IN

Shrek's Loss... Dimmi's Gain

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Safe Bets for Big Four (Five?)

Flashback all the way to last Saturday morning. The Ferguson household was quiet. Manchester United was playing the early game, so I snuck downstairs with my Rooney jersey on, eager to see the Red Devils take on Everton (it takes more than cheating on your pregnant wife to before I’ll stop wearing your jersey… I also own a Tiger Woods hat).  

But lo and behold, there was a very unexpected decision from my distant relative Sir Alex Ferguson (an unconfirmed presumption of mine): Wayne Rooney would not be playing. 

While, for roughly 85 minutes or so, it seemed like the idea would work out, it was always going to be bad for fantasy managers like me. It turned out to be bad for Man United as well, as they gave up two late goals and settled for a draw.

The decision to rest Wayne Rooney was made more to protect him from the jeers of fans of his former club. But Sir Alex likely also had the Champions League in mind…  as did other top teams who rested or limited minutes to stars to get them ready for games in Europe.

Few players are hotter than Florent Malouda but he only played about 10 minutes last week for Chelsea. This is the danger you run into, choosing players from the Big Four and Tottenham. You pay a high price for the players and these teams are deep enough — and play in enough competitions — that they rotate bench players into the lineup more often than mid-table squads.

However, there are a few players (besides the goalkeepers) that manage to keep their spot in the lineup every week… even on these teams. Remember, they can’t earn you points if they aren’t playing… and yes, I still count Liverpool in the Big Four.

Essien and Cole have been fantasy league gold

Chelsea
Defender Ashley Cole and midfielder John Obi Mikel have played every minute of this season so far, while John Terry is not far behind. Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, and Nicolas Anelka have all shown offensive flair this year along with playing most of every game this season.

Arsenal
No one has played every minute of every game for Arsenal… but midfielder Andrey Arshavin and new striker Maroune Chamakh have come close. Some discipline and injury issues have caused Arsene Wenger to rotate defenders but Bacary Sanga and Gael Clichy are likely to be there for most games.

Manchester United
There’s been a lot of consistency on the back line for Man United so far this season, with John O’Shea and Nemanja Vidic playing every minute along with midfielder Darren Fletcher.  Patrice Evra has been a constant presence at left back and Dimitar Berbatov has logged a lot of time up front. Some thought the signing of Javier Hernandez would limit his minutes, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

Gareth Bale's a bit "special"... just look at 'em...

Tottenham
The main stalwarts for Tottenham have been midfielders Gareth Bale and Tom Huddlestone. Close behind them is midfielder Aaron Lennon. The defenders are settling into a pattern… but no one has played more than the equivalent of three out of four games this season and the strikers are being rotated a lot, due to injuries.

Liverpool
With Rafael Benitez gone, fantasy managers have enjoyed a more consistent lineup from Liverpool with a few players logging the full 360 minutes of the season so far. They include defenders Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, and Jamie Carragher, and midfielder Steven Gerrard. Also logging a lot of time are strikers Milan Jovanovic and Fernando Torres, who will be a fixture as long as he’s healthy.

FERGIE’S FIVE:

Let’s review last week’s column. Even in a week where there were few goals, I gave you some gems to add into your fantasy team. Did any other fantasy column in the world predict that West Brom’s Chris Brunt would get on the board against Tottenham? Ahem… Or how about that sage advice that Birmingham’s Ben Foster had something to prove this season? Foster rewarded myself and the managers who chose him with a clean sheet vs. Liverpool.

Here are five players to watch for this weekend:

THE CAPTAIN: I promise to pick someone different next week… but how can you go wrong with making Didier Drogba your captain when Chelsea is at home to Blackpool (and is it me or has Chelsea had a very friendly schedule so far this season…). If you don’t have Drogba, make any other Chelsea player your captain!

HOT STREAKS:Bolton’s Johan Elmander is finally living up to his potential as a goal scorer. Surprisingly he’s been more deadly around the net than Kevin Davies this season, giving Bolton a strong attacking duo up front.

One Dembele... there's only one Dembele...

Fulham’s Moussa Dembele has two goals and two assists in his last two games and will be asked to carry an even heavier load after the injury to Bobby Zamora.

BARGAINS:Even though he’s going up against Chelsea, it must be said that Blackpool’s Charlie Adam has been one of the most efficient players early in the season. Adam has a goal and two assists in the first four games from the midfield position.

And though he’s only owned by only 4% of teams in the fantasy league, Birmingham midfielder Craig Gardner already has three goals. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but it won’t cost you much to find out.

Scott Ferguson

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No more donkeys, please

Down the Lane these days, our ’Arry has apparently used up all his goodwill saving Russian donkeys (not named Pavlyuchenko) from parasailing pratfalls, and is lambasting the powers the be for scheduling an England friendly against Hungary too close to the start of the Premiership season for his liking.

With some glaring holes at the back and his club’s inaugural Champions League qualification looming large, the Tottenham boss would rather have his team on the training ground than traipsing around the world for preseason friendlies, or losing players for a few days of international duty. If he wants something else to worry about, Redknapp can wonder whether Spurs will have their plans for a new stadium approved when Haringey Council says yea or nay on Sept. 13.

Tottenham aren’t counting on having Jonathan Woodgate on their 25-man roster when new squad rules take effect this season and, with Ledley King as gimpy as ever, ’Arry is reportedly after Villa’s Curtis Davies, Everton’s Phil Jagielka or Man. Citeh’s Micah Richards to slot into the centre of his back line. As long as they’re not donkeys, ’Arry, you can bring in whoever you like.

City may not be quite ready to let Richards walk, but it seems the new roster rules could force a shocking 30 players out the door at Eastlands, with some paid off by the deep pocketed owners to get the hell out. So much for Welcome to Manchester.

Switching to the Red Mancs, United went south of the border to Mexico but came out a 3-2 loser to CD Chivas in the final game of its North American tour in what must have been a bit of a confusing night for newly-signed Javier Hernandez, who said goodbye to the Goats by scoring a goal for Chivas in the first half, then switching shirts and suiting up for his new team after the break.

Finally, while the departing Diego Maradona makes claims of betrayal against his former employers in Argentina, the AFA has reportedly sets its sights on former Sheffield United midfielder and current Estudiantes manager Alejandro Sabella to take over the pressure-packed post of national team boss.

Ian Harrison

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Filed under Premier League, South America

The Kids Are Alright

Macheda has a habit of scoring big goals for United

Twenty-four seconds. That’s all it took for Manchester United’s Federico Macheda to score against the best that the MLS had to offer. The creme of North America had done well versus international competition over the last six years, winning five of those matches.  But facing Sir Alex’s youthful juggernaut — a team still smarting from a weekend loss to Kansas City — the league’s best players ran into trouble after 24 seconds… and likely sealed their doomwhen they allowed the 18-year-old Macheda to score again just 12 minutes later. 

A massive crowd was on hand in Houston — 70,000 plus — but put that down to fans wanting to catch a glimpse of the Red Devils, rather than a show of continentalism.  Toronto FC’s Dwayne DeRosario managed a goal, as did hometown hero Brian Ching.  However, United’s “B” side are as good as any team in the MLS and that’s why the end result was 5-2.

Macheda and new signing Javier Hernandez seem to be the vanguard of the new Busby Babes, with Ferguson looking for both players to help Wayne Rooney with goal production this year.  Sir Alex hasn’t been at the helm of Man U for a quarter of a century for nothing.  Look for them to challenge for the Premier League title again this year, with a young and mainly British team in support.

Fergie Glazes Over Fan Unrest
Sir Alex says he’s quite happy with the Glazer Family ownership. Even though the club is a billion dollars in debt, Ferguson says they basically leave him alone. Just one more reason for Liverpool fans to envy hate United.

Lennon's miserable European run continues

Champions League
Two former European club champions are fighting to keep their infant CL campaigns alive. Celtic were handed their sheleighlies in Portugal on Wednesday, losing to Braga 3-0. The Glaswegians failed to get a single shot on net, and have been woeful on the continent underneath Neil Lennon.

Meanwhile, Ajax’s Champions Leagues hopes hang by a thread after PAOK Salonika scored a valuable away goal, to end the match 1-1. At The Rails’ own Late Night Lenny Grammenopoulos has been kidnapped by his new wife back to Greece… but we know the long-suffering PAOK fan is licking his lips at the thought of European football.

Woy's Liverpool wins with... That Guy... and Whatshisname...

Europa League
Roy Hodgson’s gamble paid off, as Liverpool’s youthful side comfortably beat Rabotnicki Skopje in Macedonia 2-0. Maybe it was the harsh lighting and concrete decor of the Soviet era stadium… but that might have been the most boring match this writer has ever seen. Oh well, expect Rabotnicki to get a whomping at Anfield next week.

Irish eyes were not smiling, as Juventus beat Shamrock Rovers 2-0 in Dublin. Amauri scored for the Old Lady two minutes in, and it’s basically curtains for Rovers.

Other scores: Goteburg lost 0-2 to AZ Alkmaar, Galatasaray drew OFK Belgrade 2-2 in Istanbul, Red Star Belgrade lost 2-1 to Slovan Bratislava, and Greek powerhouse Olympiakos beat Maccabi Tel-Aviv 2-1.

Sin Citeh
Former Manchester City manager Mark Hughes has signed a two-year deal at Fulham.  Meanwhile the most expensive player he ever signed — Robinho — has been told to report to camp.  The Brazilian was loaned out to Santos last year.

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under Champions League, Europa League, MLS, Premier League

Consider the Gaffer

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

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

Mad Men’s season premiere is tonight.

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

'Arry orders another drink before speaking to the press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Football? What football?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brent Lanthier

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Filed under La Liga, Premier League, Serie A