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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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Benfica Brushes Off Bid

It's a 35 million pound plane ride from Lisbon to London for Luiz

Reports surfaced this week that Benfica turned down Chelsea’s 17-million pound bid for defender David Luiz.  The reign of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was marked by several acquisitions from the Portuguese Primeira Liga (most of them at the back): Bosignwa, Ferreira, Carvalho, Deco, Hilario, Maniche, Nuno Marais, Tiago.  So you’d be forgiven for thinking Lord Valdemorta was still in charge.

The Brazilian Luiz has been a rock for the Lisbon club. He’s also only 23… that’s fetus years for a central defender.  It may not come as a surprise then that Benfica has valued their young investment at a whopping 35 million pounds.

The asking price may be for the benefit of the prying eyes and deep pockets of  Chelski and Manchester al-Citeh, but it may also speak towards a new attitude at Benfica.

The all-time league champions have been forced to watch as a Northern power — Porto — has grown to dominate Portuguese soccer, winning 13 of the last 20 domestic titles as well as a couple of European titles.  Shades of Liverpool acquiesing to Manchester United over the exact same time frame.

But unlike Liverpool, Benfica has been re-born, winning last year’s title and pipping both Porto and hated derby rivals, Sporting, for a Champions League spot.  Now they are keen to hang onto that new pride.

Except things haven’t been that great lately.  Benfica are chasing Porto in the league, sitting eight points behind them.  It didn’t help that The Dragons humiliated Benfica in November, hobbling them with a 5-0 pounding that may haunt the Eagles if goal difference comes into play.  They have also dropped into the Europa League, which means there could still be an extra showdown with big bad Porto.

Benfica is a young team.  During their last league game, they fielded eight players under the age of 25; three were defenders and a fourth was a defensive midfielder.  They are also very heavily South American.  Again, the last league game featured eight from the continent, including veterans Javier Saviola and Pablo Aimar, as well as World Cup standouts like Paraguay’s Oscar Cardoza and Uruguay’s Maxi Pereira.  In fact, I picked Pereira as well as LB/LW Fabio Coentrao for my World Cup Starting XI.

I think it’s great that Benfica have popped such an exorbitant tag on Luiz. Before the age of television rights, Benfica were a force who could compete with the Real Madrids and Chelseas.  Sure, Luiz’ sale would generate some incredible cash for the team.  But maybe they know that Abramovich is losing interest in his English hobby… and that Manchester City is having trouble dumping salaries.

Or maybe they are just being a little bit selfish and petty.  Good for them.

Brent Lanthier

Luiz in 20 years...

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World Cup Payday

The best way I’ve heard the World Cup described is that it’s a sprint, not a marathon. In a sport where the best players on the biggest club teams often have to play a 50+ match season, seven games over a month isn’t a lot — and it may not be the best way to judge a player’s ability.

Scouting for the big clubs is a now a world-wide affair and it’s rare that a player is unknown.  But a great tournament performance can be too irresistible for some teams to pass up. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. Witness then-Liverpool manager Gerrard Houllier’s ill-chosen signings from the 2002 Senegal team.

Still… if you base it on their World Cup performances, here’s 10 players who have earned a change of scenery.

Forlan's Golden Ball may earn him a golden handshake

Diego Forlan (URU)
Current Club: Atletico Madrid
This tournament’s Golden Ball winner, Forlan is coming off a Europa League win as well. He has excelled since leaving the Premier League and says he won’t go back. Look for Juventus to make an offer as Atletico tries to raise funds for defensive players.

Luis Suarez (URU)
Current Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Suarez played well off of Forlan, and scored some lovely goals before the hand-ball “incident”. He is rumoured to be a part of Ajax’s restructuring i.e. massive sell-off that already has Martin Jol seeing red.

Maxi Pereira (URU)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
This writer’s pick for right-back of the tournament, Pereira ran rampant on the flank. He scored against the Dutch, while clocking up 66 kilometres in six games. With natural fullbacks at a premium in the Prem, perhaps Senor Pereira might head north for the winter…

Carlos Salcido (MEX)
Current Club: PSV Eindhoven
The left-back led his national team in shots at this World Cup, including a close one off the crossbar against Argentina. A highly-rated player, even ‘Arry tried to sign him.  Rumours are that Roberto Martinez will try to bring him to Wigan.

Fabio Coentrao (POR)
Current Club: Benfica Lisbon
Only 22 years old, Coentrao was amazing on the left flank, slotted in as a fullback but playing like a winger. There is already talk that fellow countryman Jose Mourinho will pluck him from Lisbon and drop him into Madrid. Rumours are also swirling that Chelsea buying him as a replacement for Ashley Cole.

Justo Villar (PAR)
Current Club: Real Valladolid (Spanish 2nd Division)
Villar allowed only two goals all tournament — and one of them was David Villa’s weird-ass goal that went off the post three times. Villar also blocked a re-taken penalty kick and, in the match against Japan, denied the swarming Keisuke Honda a goal. Plus, he’s wanted out of his newly-relegated club since last season.

John Mensah (GHA)
Current Club: Olympique Lyonnais
What are the odds? Ghana’s central defence consisted of Johnathan Mensah —  who plays for Udinese — and Lyon’s John Mensah. Confusing, non? What’s not confusing is John’s next probable destination. He played 15 games for Sunderland on-loan last season — even scoring a goal and Steve Bruce would like to bring him back.  But it would likely have to be on loan again because of Mensah’s injury problems.

Robinho (BRA)
Current Club: Manchester City
Robinho spent last season on loan back in his native Brazil, due to a falling out with Citeh manager, Roberto Mancini. After a very decent performance alongside Luis Fabiano, it’s likely that Robinho will never return to Manchester. There are rumours he could be used as trade bait for Inter Milan’s Balotelli, or to pry young Brazilian star Neymar from Santos.

Mesut Ozil (GER)
Current Team: Werder Bremen
Everyone and their mother seem to be keen on Germany’s playmaker. The 21-year-old Ozil has been valued at 15 million pounds by Bremen. After scoring a goal — and helping on three others — he may be worth it.

Klose may still have wind in his wings...

Miroslav Klose (GER)
Current Club: Bayern Munich
This old warhorse had a great World Cup, scoring some unattractive but not unappreciated goals. He has vowed to remain in Munich for the last year of his contract, but after only starting 12 times last season due to injury, Klose has a tough fight on his hands. A stellar domestic season by first-choice Ivica Olic — and an astounding international debut by Thomas Muller — means it may be in Klose’s best interests to find another team.

Brent Lanthier

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