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More Iberian Misery, and the USA is A-OK

Pepe-MullerThe highly-anticipated Germany-Portugal match turned out to be a rout, even before Pepe’s flash of anger got him sent off.  The Germans were all over the team in claret, dragging them this way and that.  Portugal’s first bad decision came when João Pereira pulled down Mario Götze in the box.  Up steps Thomas Müller… and in goes the ball.  Twenty minutes later, Mats Hummels got a running start off a corner to head the ball in… 2-nil.

Hummels rising like Eine sprichwörtliche Lachs

Hummels rising like whatever the German word is for salmon.

Then came Müller’s obvious theatrics, which raised Pepe’s ire… but why he let the blood rush to his head, we’ll never know… probably because that’s what Pepe does.  Portugal are down to 10-men and Müller goes on to score two more goals, rubbing salt in Portugal’s wounds.  After the match, coach Paulo Bento claimed the referee was biased against Portugal, but that’s pretty rich considering their record for flopping around (and taking pride in it).  Germany 4-0 Portugal.

The other match in this group featured two teams trying to capitalize on Portugal’s slip.  The U-S-A came out as expected, playing organized and physical football.  Clint Dempsey gave the Stars and Stripes a dream start with the fifth-quickest goal in World Cup history.  After that, things calmed down a bit.  A couple of USA injuries (Jozy Altidore’s tournament appears to be over after a hamstring injury, Matt Besler came off at the half) meant that Jürgen Klinsmann had to make subs earlier than he would have liked.   Ghana got a kick start in the second half when Kevin-Prince Boateng came on (it was surprising that Akwasi Appiah started neither Boateng nor Michael Essien in midfield).   The Black Stars’ shots started flying in, albeit most of them from way outside the box.

Brooks in disbelief

Brooks in disbelief

After being down for 80 minutes, Asamoah Gyan gave a lovely little backheel pass to Andrew Ayew who flicked the ball past Tim Howard with the outside of his left foot.  Pandemonium amongst the Ghanaian support.  However, just four minutes later, the American substitute John Anthony Brooks — a man born and raised in Germany — scored a header off a corner… and earned himself his own Wheaties box.  USA 2-1 Ghana

Brent P. Lanthier

 

 

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World Cup 2014 Preview: Groups G & H

Germans arrive
The last two groups could not be more opposite in quality and reputation.  While I don’t think Group G is the Group of Death, I do think that the four nations will have their work cut out for them.  Meanwhile, the young Belgians will have a chance to strut their stuff while the other three fight their way through.

GROUP G

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Miroslav Klose-ing in on World Cup history

Much has been written in recent days about the injuries to Joachim Löw’s Germany.  Marco Reus tore his ankle just days before the tournament, and potential starters Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are all either playing with knocks or coming off recent injuries.  Luckily for Löw, he suffers from an embarrassment of riches.   Half of Der Mannschaft (tee hee, Mannschaft…  still makes me giggle) plays for either of Germany’s two biggest teams: Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.  The side also features Arsenal’s three prizes: veteran defender Per Mertesacker, as well as attacking midfielders Mesut Özil and Lukas Podolski, and Chelsea’s Andre Schürrle.  Löw’s Teutonic system (the newest rage in football, a melange of tiki-taka and counter-attacking) means all hands going forward, which explains why he only brought one striker: 36-year-old Miroslav Klose.  If Klose plays — and scores — Germany’s all-time record goal-scorer will tie Brazil’s Ronaldo for all-time World Cup goals (15).   SEMI-FINALS

Apparently, he's going to be okay...

Apparently, he’s going to be okay…

If there is one nation whose fans’ self-delusion rivals that of England’s, it’s Portugal‘s.  Every four years — two if you count the Euros — their fans believe they have what it takes to be world beaters.  But like England, they strive and fall short.  Portugal features a superstar player in Cristiano Ronaldo (just like Wayne Rooney) who is surrounded by a team of competent players that would never get a kick at the can in a side like Argentina or Brazil (just like England).  Portugal are also a nation whose FIFA ranking is absurdly high, boosted by a complicated formula (just like England).   Ronaldo has been fighting to be fit for this tournament.  If he performs like he does for Real Madrid, Portugal could go deep into quarter-final territory.  But their path is likely blocked by Belgium in the knockout stages and then Argentina.  ROUND OF 16

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Bradley and USA in tough in Group G

Jürgen Klinsmann says he will sing both Germany’s and the U.S.A.‘s national anthems, when the two teams square off in their very last group game.  By then, Klinsmann will have a pretty good idea whether his last three years of effort have finally elevated the USA into the elite pantheon of football nations.   A look at his side would suggest it hasn’t yet.   I don’t want to write off the Stars and Stripes: they are well organized and physical.  They feature a handful of players who are class: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are great keepers; Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Jozy Altidore have all cut their teeth in the Premier League, and Michael Bradley — despite his strange move to MLS — will be the lynchpin of Klinsmann’s side.  It’s a pity they are in a group with Germany and Portugal.  The building continues.  THREE AND OUT

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars' two superstars

Muntari and Essien: the Black Stars’ two superstars

Everyone’s favourite in South Africa 2010, Ghana faces the plague of other successful African nations: inflated expectations.  The Black Stars’ midfield is still credible: Milan’s Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will bolster the back line,  with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in front of them.  But no one will be surprised by the Ghanaians, and that’s unfortunate in a tough group like this.  THREE AND OUT

GROUP H 

Just in case you're wondering who Hazard plays for...

Just in case you’re wondering who Hazard plays for…

The return of Belgium to the biggest international stage has excited many soccer purists.  After finishing fourth at Mexico ’86, the Belgians were disappointing, bowing out early in the next three World Cups.  The country’s football association then changed the way it trained young players, and it also changed its relationship with its big clubs.  Now the the Red Devils are in their first international tournament since Japan/Korea ’02 and what a line-up.  Thibault Courtois and Simon Mignolet are two of the most sought-after young keepers in the world right now.  Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were easily Chelsea and Everton’s best players, respectively, while Kevin Mirallas was no slouch either, and Dries Marten scored 13 goals for Rafa Benitez’ Napoli.  Marc Wilmots is bringing only one true fullback, selecting seven centre backs to play in his defence.  What’s more, that defence is expected to press high up the pitch.  Even if they don’t go far, this team will get a couple another kick at the can at the Euros in France and then Russia’s World Cup. QUARTER-FINALS

A rare smile from Capello

A rare smile from Capello

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to rebuild itself to the former power of her predecessor (that’s because most of the USSR’s great players were Ukrainian.  Shhh).  Save for a third place finish in Euro 2008, they’ve failed to make it out of the group stage.  However, Euro 2012 was a good showcase for them.  Too bad this is a different side with a different manager.  Capello has made this team more defensive, as is his way.  Captain Roman Shirokov had to bow out to injury, and exciting young Alan Dzagoev is in the Italian gaffer’s bad books.  Still, this is a weak group, and they should be able to get through… unless they can’t stand the heat.  Literally.  ROUND OF 16

Slimani sees who's waiting if they finish second...

Slimani sees who’s waiting if they finish second…

Algeria are currently the highest-ranked team in Africa right now, due in part to a new philosophy brought in by manager,Vahid Halilhodžić.  Most of his players are young men who were born in France but chose to play in the country of their parents’ birth, and most of them are bench players in the Spanish, French and English leagues.  One exception is Islam Slimani, who scored 10 goals in 31 appearances for Sporting Lisbon; another is Sofiane Feghouli who regularly starts for Valencia.  Anything has to be an improvement over the boooring football played in South Africa (ask England fans), but Algeria still have to grow.  THREE AND OUT

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

Hong Myung-Bo: the man, the myth, the manager

South Korea have also done a 180 with their tactics, after Korean legend Hong Myung-Bo made them more technical, with less kick-and-run and more passing.   British football fans will be familiar with Ki Sung-yeung, who was bought from Celtic by Swansea City, in a move that broke the Welsh team’s transfer record; he then spent this season on loan at Sunderland.   Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min is probably S. Korea’s best player, which leaves a smattering of bit players in the Bundesliga, Prem and Asian leagues.   You want the Koreans to replicate the success they had at their own World Cup in 2002, but they won’t.  THREE AND OUT

 Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: The Bracket

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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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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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Team America: More than just puppets

Ian Harrison

England will face a stern first-match test at this summer’s World Cup when they play the United States on June 12 in Rustenburg. Despite winning seven of nine all-time meetings with the Americans, outscoring their opponents 35-8 in those games, England will know this is a capable and dangerous US team, one coming off a first-place finish in CONCACAF qualifying and a finals appearance at last summer’s Confederations Cup.

That tournament was marked by the USA’s impressive 2-0 victory over Spain in the semi-finals, ending the European champions’ 15-match winning streak, and by America’s 2-0 halftime lead over Brazil in the final, a game that ended in a 3-2 victory for the South Americans.

In fact, that blown lead was a hallmark of the USA’s recent defeats; they also saw advantages disappear in a Confederations Cup loss to Italy, and in a CONCACAF qualifying match against Mexico.

The biggest story when America announced its preliminary roster this week was the omission of Charlie Davies. The fleet-footed forward, whose pace created problems for opponents at the Confederations Cup, suffered a ruptured bladder, fractured elbow, broken tibia and femur and facial injuries in a car accident last October. His French club, Sochaux, had not given full medical clearance for him to play in South Africa.

Davies was a passenger in that crash, which came one day before a World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica at Washington’s RFK Stadium, and happened after Davies was out beyond the team curfew on the eve of the match.

Another notable omission was one-time teenage phenom Freddy Adu, now playing in for Greek club Aris Thessaloniki.

With Davies unavailable, the possibility exists that US coach Bob Bradley could select an MLS player, either Houston’s Brian Ching or former TFC player and current LA Galaxy forward Edson Buddle, to join Jozy Altidore in attack. Both lack major international experience: Buddle’s only national team appearance was 11 minutes as a substitute against Venezuela seven years ago, while Ching played in two qualifying matches but has never played at the World Cup

Another option is Herculez Gomez, who tied for the Mexican League lead with 10 goals at first division Puebla this season, making him the first American to lead a foreign league in scoring.

Galaxy midfielder and long-time US national team player Landon Donovan is the other MLS player expected to play a major role.

Several American back line players are recovering from injury-plagued seasons. A.C. Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu is coming back from knee surgery and has not played in seven months. Carlos Bocanegra missed Rennes’ match last weekend with stomach pain and Jay DeMerit last played April 17, dropped from Watford’s final three games because of an abdominal injury.

There are injury woes in midfield, too. Bolton’s Stuart Holden returned on the final weekend of the EPL season after a broken leg and Fulham’s Clint Dempsey missed two months earlier this year with a knee injury.

So, how will Bradley’s squad line up? Everton’s Tim Howard is a lock for the top goalkeeper’s spot, Onyewu and Bocanegra are expected to anchor the central defensive positions and Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Spector are the leading candidates for right back and left back, respectively.

Bradley is thought to favour versatility in midfield, with Dempsey and Donovan given space to roam forward. Holden can play any midfield position and is a dead ball threat. Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, who plays his club football for Germany’s Monchengladbach, is as comfortable in a holding role as he is in attack. Another Bundesliga player, Ricardo Clark of Eintracht Frankfurt, will share defensive responsibilities with Maurice Edu, who got his professional start in Canada with Toronto FC before being sold to Glasgow Rangers.

They may be strong in goal and capable in attack with Altidore, Dempsey and Donovan, the Americans must be considered inferior to England down the middle of the field, especially at the back. The outcome of this game could be pivotal in determining whether England will be able to top Group C, and should be a cracking start to the tournament for both teams.

The Americans will play three friendlies before the World Cup, two at home and one in South Africa. They will face the Czech Republic in East Hartford, Conn. on May 25, then play Turkey in Philadelphia on May 29. They will complete their tune-up against Australia in a June 5 game in Roodepoort, South Africa.

Canadian fans used to being spurned by native-born players will note with interest that even the United States, which has now qualified for six straight World Cups, is having trouble holding on to some of its talented players. New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi was selected for Italy while Neven Subotic, born in Bosnia but raised in Utah, will play for Serbia, where his parents were born.

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