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Spain’s Pain, Dutch Dreams and Chile’s Voodoo on the Socceroos

THAT goal...

THAT goal…

After seven blindingly-good matches over two days, I’m already a bit knackered (several pints of cider having nothing to do with it).   There have been some shockers and lots of goals… good thing I’ve cleared my calendar.

After almost 48 hours, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the Dutch win over Spain.  Five goals against the defending World champions would be unheard of two years ago.  Both teams played high and aggressive, but it was power that won over possession, as the Netherlands seemed to find space for their runs.  Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were as good as they’ve ever been, with RvP scoring his Superman header, imitating Bobby Orr in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals.  Nigel de Jong dominated the midfield… but strangely, Wesley Sneijder was not as involved as he may have been in the past.  Meanwhile Spain’s spine seemed to shut down: Iker Casillas were horrible, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué were caught with their pants down, and Xavi seemed to falter.

The Dutch had Spain on her knees...

The Dutch had Spain on her knees…

Some pundits say the warning signs were there that this is a team in its autumn years… although you could also argue these are players that have come off punishing domestic and Champions league campaigns.   Also noteworthy is that Spain had most of the possession, but as Bobby McMahon wrote for Forbes magazine, possession means nothing.  Is this the end of Spanish dominance and tika-taka?  Netherlands 3-1 Spain

Bad officiating reared its ugly head in this match as well.  The second Dutch goal went in as RVP bonked Casillas in the noggin.  It should have been foul; instead it was 2-1 and changed the tone of the game.

Nothing dirty about Sanchez' goal

Nothing dirty about Sanchez’ goal

Meanwhile, Australia performed admirably against a lightning-quick Chile on Friday.   Both teams stuck to form, with the Chileans scoring early and dominating the first third of the game.  However, the Socceroos gathered the wits and Tim Cahill scored a trademark header.   Note: the Chileans are tiny.  Who knew?  However, they gave as good as they got, with almost as many tackles as the Aussies… but the South Americans had far fewer fouls.  The Chileans will get through (especially now that Spain is there for the taking), the Aussies won’t… but neither will be taken lightly from here on in.  Chile 3-1 Australia.

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: Crunch Time

Little Leighton feels comfortable at home....

Toffees and the Carling Cup Champs
We are heading into the home stretch and while I never, ever, recommend spending transfer money (maybe if you can’t field a starting 11 but even then it may not be worth spending four points), you have to start maximizing your weekly returns.  If you are watching the fixture list like a hawk, as you should be, then you have a spotted an opportunity.  Everton and Birmingham City both play twice this week so you should spend at least your free weekly transfer on a player from one of these teams.

Everton
Coming off a clean sheet last week, Everton’s defenders — as well as keeper Tim Howard — are pretty good bets. The Toffees are away to Newcastle and then home to Birmingham City.  Two of the top three fantasy performers on Everton are on the back line: Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman.  Baines gets lots of offensive points by being the primary corner and free-kick taker, along with making some decent runs down the left side.  He’s pricey but worth it.

More affordable and a bit of a fantasy rule-breaking grey area is Seamus Coleman. That’s because while he is listed in the game as a defender, he’s playing as a midfielder.  This means when he scores or gets a clean sheet, your team will be credited with more points than you normally would if he was listed correctly.

Saha may light up the league this week... if he can avoid the knock...

Up front, Everton also have a couple of in -orm strikers in Louis Saha and Jermaine Beckford. Beckford notched two goals last game to give him three in his last three games.  Saha came up empty but he is always deadly as he showed in his four-goal performance a few weeks ago.

The latest injury reports have the great Aussie midfielder Tim Cahill out for three weeks so avoid him, along with the giant afro-sporting Marouane Fellaini, who is out for the season.

Birmingham
The Carling Cup winners have likely just peaked on the year, but they do have some players worth considering.  This week, they are home to West Brom and away to Everton.  Their top player this season has been goalkeeper Ben Foster who would be a solid pick this week as well.

Johnson points out how he's a solid choice.

The most in-form player on the team has to be Nikola Zigic who has three goals in his last four Premier League games, including one in the Carling Cup final.  He’s also quite affordable.  Same for Barry Ferguson who is having a solid season, but he’s a better long term investment then someone who will score big points in one week. New signing David Bentley has also impressed, though I’d like to see how consistent he is before grabbing him for my squad.

Finally, if you need a defender, Roger Johnson is a solid choice at the back.  He won’t provide a lot of offence but he and Foster have a good chance of getting clean sheets against West Brom.

Scott Ferguson

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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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Fergie’s Fantasy: Rating the Dream Team

Betcha he wishes he had a wild card...

It’s the January transfer window! While it’s not as exciting as the summer transfer window, it is a good opportunity for fantasy managers to revamp their teams. That’s because, for the first time, the Premier League fantasy game offers a January wild card where you can make as many transfers as you like.   Here’s the top 11 in terms of points for the season so far, and whether you should transfer them in or out…

Goalkeeper

Joe Hart –  Manchester City – 110pts.
He’s pricey but worth every penny.  Just ask Arsenal.  He made five brilliant saves to hold a clean sheet against them away from home.  IN

Defenders

No-nonsense Vidic

Nemanja Vidic – Manchester United – 90 pts. 
The rock on Manchester United’s back four has been as solid as ever lately. While does have three goals this year, you can count on him for clean-sheet points as Man U has been very stingy when it comes to conceding goals.  IN

Ashley Cole – Chelsea – 89 pts.
Nothing against Cole personally but Chelsea are in a freefall (Ed Note: He’s a tw@t).  Nobody on the squad is scoring consistently and they aren’t keeping many clean sheets either.  If the veterans start to turn on each other it could get uglier.  OUT unless Chelsea turns it around.

Leighton Baines – Everton – 92 pts. 
The Everton defender had 138 pts last season and now has 92 at the halfway point.  He’s on fire.  Yes he’s pricey, but worth it.  IN

Midfielders

Nani has been more than OK for FFL points

Nani – Manchester United – 116 pts.
Nani has thrived in the absence of Valencia from the Man United lineup. He also seems to score whether Wayne Rooney is in or not. In addition to his goals he gets piles of assists from his crosses. Did I mention he and Tevez are tied for the fantasy scoring lead? IN. Make him your captain.

Tim Cahill – Everton – 107 pts.
Cahill plays almost as high up the pitch as a striker, but he’s still classified as a midfielder…. so in that sense is an interesting choice.  He’s an unstoppable force in the box this season but since he’s now at the Asia Cup, you need to ditch him.  If he stays healthy think about grabbing him again later on.  OUT

Florent Malouda – Chelsea – 105 pts.
I thought this was going to be Malouda’s year.  He seemed to be an explosive offensive force throughout the early portion of the season, but like Ashley Cole, his fantasy numbers have tanked during the team’s recent struggles.  OUT

Rafael Van Der Vaart – Tottenham – 108pts.
If it weren’t for some injury trouble, he would surely be leading the league in fantasy points.  He does it all: scores goals, sets up goals, takes corners, takes free kicks.  Combined with the strong play of Gareth Bale, Spurs have an increasingly deadly midfield.  IN and make him your captain (if for some reason you haven’t picked up Nani.)

Strikers

Tevez breezes by Captain Schtupping

Carlos Tevez – Manchester City – 116 pts.
One of the few players who seems to be able to leave any off-field issues where they belong: off the field.  He performs against great competition and weak teams both and can score almost any time he touches the ball.  IN

Dimitar Berbatov – Manchester United – 113 pts.
Maybe I’m bitter because I dropped him the night before he scored his five goals in one game, (Hey, can you blame me? He hadn’t scored in ten games or so.  But that still didn’t stop me from weeping as I watched.  No one was buying my ‘tears of joy’ excuse.) but I don’t think Berbatov can score without playing alongside Wayne Rooney.  He slumped the first time Rooney was injured this year, and I wouldn’t advise picking him up until they are reunited. OUT

Andrew Carroll – Newcastle – 113 pts.
A walking advertisement for the quality of the Championship, Carroll waltzed into the Premier League and immediately became one of its most deadly strikers.  He’s injured now but if you have him, I’d keep him.  If not, wait until he gets healthy, which should be in a week or two, and then transfer him. IN

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: The Hectic Holidays

WAGS. Keeping players fit during the holidays since 1886....

You think you are busy now. Buying presents, stuffing turkeys, hanging lights etc. But your busy holiday season is only just starting.

First, put off that shopping and wrapping. You need to set your line-up for the full slate of boxing day games! Trust me, act now, don’t let it depend on the dial-up at your grandmother’s house on Christmas night. Don’t pick your team under the influence of an egg nog hangover. Do it now.

Just like the Premier League itself, fantasy leagues can be won or lost over the holiday season. Don’t believe me? You can count four game weeks between now and January 5th. Hope you took some time off to peruse stats and agonize over transfers. If not, here’s a few players that would look nice in any lineup.
 

For Your Consideration

Cahill may bring you some Xmas cheer

Tim Cahill – At a cost of 9.2, he’s expensive but it’s becoming costly to fantasy teams that don’t have him. In a week where snow cancelled almost all the games, the average team scored 14 points, while Cahill scored 13 himself.  I am suspicious of anyone who seems to only score with his head, but the Aussie is showing enough consistency this year that he’s a force to be reckoned in Everton’s midfield… as long as he stays healthy . Did I mention in his past six games, he has four goals and two assists?

Paul Robinson – At a cost of 4.5 he’s great value . I know you are thinking that Blackburn aren’t exactly keeping a ton of clean sheets, but he makes a lot of saves and doesn’t concede as many as you might think. In fact, the former England keeper is the fourth-highest scoring goalkeeper in the league after Joe Hart, Ben Foster, and Peter Cech. While Foster is the only one of that trio who is as affordable as Robinson, Blackburn have a less daunting schedule than Birmingham over the next three weeks. No game is easy in the Premier League but Robinson will be at home to Stoke City this week, away to West Brom and Sunderland after that. Birmingham face Everton, Man Utd, and Arsenal.

Danny Welbeck – Speaking of Sunderland, when did they become a team with some of the best strikers in the league? Yes, Darren Bent has been scoring consistently in the past few seasons. But with the addition of Asamoah Gyan and the recent form of Danny Welbeck, the team is starting to look deadly around the net. Welbeck has five goals in his past six games and is finally living up to his potential in the Premier League. Welbeck also gets the edge right now over Bent or Gyan because of his low price at only 5.1.

Nani – It’s been a while since I’ve sent you a Nani reminder so here it is again. The Portuguese midfielder has steadily improved under Sir Alex Ferguson, and with the early-season injuries to Valencia and Rooney, he has become the focal point of Manchester United’s offense with both the ability to score and set up others. He’s also stopped somersaulting after scoring, which should cut down on injuries (Real injuries that is. I’m sure he’ll keep up the fake injuries in the hopes of having his opponents yellow carded). Oh, and did you know Nani is tied with Andrew Carroll as the league leader for the most fantasy points by any player this season?

Have a great Christmas and a happy holiday season! Hopefully the snow won’t cancel any more games!
Scott Ferguson

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