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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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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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Best of the Prem: Man United to Stoke

Managing at United ages you in dog years...

Apparently, the manager’s job at United ages you in dog years…

Four of these sides found mid-table mediocrity, while one of them found the trap door.   The first two clubs disappointed their fans, while the last two over-performed.   The choice for best player was obvious for three of them, while the other two offered up some choice.  Finally, only two of the clubs still have the manager they started the season with… for now.

Wazza to the rescue... again.

Wazza to the rescue… again.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Wayne Rooney (ENG) – We knew it would be a year of transition for Manchester United, and it is dishonest for people to blame David Moyes for all of the Red Devils’ transgressions this season.  Yes, Moyes showed remarkable naiveté in the transfer market and yes, his predictable tactics earned no plaudits.  But Sir Alex Ferguson left his fellow Scot with a mediocre squad that only performed for the outgoing manager.  It is the irony of ironies then, that the one player that wanted away from the club would be its most consistent player.  Robin Van Persie fans point to the Dutchman’s goals per game ratio… but Rooney put the ball in the net more and more importantly, far surpassed his team mates as a playmaker.  England’s only true world-class player… and United are lucky to have him.

Remy washes his hands of Newcaslte

Remy washes his hands of Newcastle

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Loïc Remy (FRA) – Is there a big club in more disarray than Newcastle United?  A disinterested owner and a volatile manager always seem to be the stories on Tyneside.  But now the Magpies are left to rue the departure of the team’s two best players.  Yohan Cabaye’s impact was such that he was still Newcastle’s second-best scorer, even though he left in January.  Now his compatriot, Loïc Remy, has finished his loan spell.  The signing of the Lyonnais was a coup for Pardew, and paid dividends, linking up well with Cabaye.  But then the midfielder left, Remy spent long stretches on the bench, and Newcastle’s second-half slide undid all of the successes of the season’s first half.  Pity.

Aye, listen Robbie: Norwich are fecked.

Aye, Robbie, listen: Norwich are fecked.

NORWICH CITY
Robert Snodgrass (SCO) Dutch Dreams turned into a relegation nightmare for the East Anglian side.  Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer quickly found out the Premier League is, well, leagues above the Portuguese and Dutch games.    The two — along with Celtic striker Gary Hooper — were supposed to stop Norwich’s goal slide, after the wonderful rampant play from their promotion season in 2011-12.   Instead, they flopped and the Canaries had the worst goal production in the top seven tiers of English football, and tied with relegated Bologna across Europe’s top five leagues.  The only Norwich player worth his mettle was ambi-winger Robert Snodgrass.  Look for him to end up at Upton Park next season with West Ham.

Let's hope he makes this face in Brazil...

Let’s hope he makes this face in Brazil…

SOUTHAMPTON
Adam Lallana (ENG) – At the other end of the spectrum is Southampton.  Looking at their line-up is like staring into a football shop window.  Who to pick? The “other” super-striker tandem of Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez? Young left back Luke Shaw?  Emerging playmaker Steven Davis? How about Nathaniel Clyne? The Saints’ player of the year has to be a member of the ever-elusive species, Acieslevus Anglicus: left winger Adam Lallana. You only have to watch his masterclass against Newcastle on March 29th, when he crossed, passed and scored his club through to a 4-0 romp at St. Mary’s.  He and several of his team mates will likely not be on the south coast come next season… and Southampton will be the victim of its own success.

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don't know?

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don’t know?

STOKE CITY
PETER CROUCH (ENG) – Sometimes a player will start at his small hometown club, but will quickly outgrow the team and then get swooped up by a bigger club.  But sometimes, that player should have just stayed as the big fish in the small pond.  Witness Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch, two players who did well in a wee outfit (Blackpool and QPR/Portsmouth/Villa/Norwich/S’ton) but kind of fizzled when they hit the big time (Liverpool).  However, since their arrival at Stoke City, the pair have thrived.  Adam fits in well with Mark Hughes’ rough-and-tumble philosophy, and Crouchie is the perfect target man for the tried-and-trued, oh-so-British, 4-4-2, kick-and-run style at Stoke.   Crouch gets the nod here because of his goals and assists…

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Sunderland to West Ham

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The Art of Moyes

david-Moyes

There are two kinds of football fans: Manchester United fans… and everyone else.  The United fan has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, as the hardcore ranks of the Red Army fans swelled, many of them young people who wanted to support a winner (not unlike Liverpool fans in the 70’s and 80’s, and Chelsea fans over the last decade).   Winning begets winning, both in the trophy case and on the balance sheet, and Manchester United has rode their success to the top of the football world.

However, the inevitable consequence of United’s prolonged success has been envy.  The club’s double-decade dominance of the Premier League has given their rivals a generation to sharpen their knives and bide their time.  So when Sir Alex Ferguson’s announced his retirement this past spring, the rest of the soccer world sensed that United’s hegemony would begin to diminish.    Fans were sick of Ferguson’s mind games, his badgering and bullying of officials, alng with the club’s contribution to the gross inflation of players’ wages and the normalization of leveraged-to-the-hilt spending.  Supporters of “other” clubs have been waiting for United to stumble and fall.

That David Moyes would be under the cosh from the start was thus undeniable.  There is only one Alex Ferguson, a man who willed, cajoled and frightened his team to victory while speaking and moving as a larger-than-life figure.  One can only imagine that, when the legend finally passes, a film version of his remarkable life will hit theatres sooner rather than later.  It should come as no surprise then, that someone like Moyes — an admitted stats geek who is more likely to have a quiet word with a player than give him the “hairdryer treatment” — was bound to underwhelm.

Fellaini calls for a taxi...

Fellaini calls for a taxi…

Initially, Moyes did not help his own cause.   The former Everton manager needed to make a splash in the summer transfer market, both to settle down the naysayers and to fill some very real deficiencies in United’s spine.   When the window closed, Moyes’ only acquisition was his midfield anchor at Everton, Marouane Fellaini.  It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing: £27.5 million for a player that has only appeared eleven times for the Red Devils, only seven as a starter.   The squad was already weak (by United’s standards) but now the holes have been laid bare for all to see.

Meanwhile, the strikes against the man from East Dumbartonshire started to add up.  A 1-0 loss at Anfield, a 4-1 loss to crosstown rivals City, and a 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford to dwindling  West Brom made for a terrible September.  Draws against Southampton, Real Sociedad, Cardiff and Tottenham piled it on, but it was successive losses at home against former club Everton and then Newcastle United that meant Moyes was officially “under pressure”.  It didn’t help that the travelling fans in both of those games sang about Moyes getting sacked in the morning.

Rio really shows all he can.

Rio really shows all he can.

The reality is that United are not the favourites to win this season’s Premier League title; they never were.  The holes in central midfield and centre back are glaring.  CB Phil Jones has deputized for Michael Carrick during times of injury, while the rest of the backline continues to look shaky.  You only have to look at Rio Ferdinand against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10th.  Time after time, he was getting schooled by Alex Teixeira, leaving RF5 looking like John Terry in that World Cup match against Germany.  United won the game, but only after waking up at the half.  Meanwhile, former Premier League Player of the Year Nemanja Vidic has not been the same player since a knee injury two years ago.

Despite United’s mediocrity in defence (they’ve almost reached the total Goals Allowed average of their title runs from 2007-2009), they have kept pace with the rest of the league.  However, it’s goal scoring that has become a bigger issue.  They are 13 markers behind last season’s tally after 18 matches.  While Moyes has been criticized for importing his negative tactics from Goodison Park, the bigger culprit has been RVP’s reduced impact, through slump and then injury.

But the Dutchman’s woes are part of a bigger dynamic that Moyes will have to address in January and then July.   United have been on the decline for some time.  While Ferguson has always had a great eye for young talent, and the ability to develop said talent, you got the sense in the last few years that he was, well, slipping.  There is no way that a younger Sir Alex would have allowed Wayne Rooney to sulk himself into a new contract.   Meanwhile, the purchase of Robin Van Persie sealed Ferguson’s final league title, but only by covering up the rest of the team’s deficiencies through a barrage of game-winning goals.

In the next five weeks, Moyes will have to make his own mark in the transfer market.  No less than 11 key United players will be out of contract in the next 18 months.  Five of those players are done in July, with four of them —  Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Fabio — playing on United’s back line (the fifth, Ryan Giggs, will almost certainly join United’s staff full-time).  That leaves Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Jones and Alexander Büttner to fill their spots: not exactly a ringing endorsement for positions that favour men over boys.   On the flip side, Moyes is known for emulating his predecessor by signing youth over experience.  That could be bad news for Michael Carrick (32), or the illness-plagued Darren Fletcher (29).   Throw in Moyes’ low tolerance for petulance and out goes Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.   Most importantly, the team still has not found a meaningful and long-term replacement for Paul Scholes.  Shinji Kagawa has been pushed to the left, and Rooney has been playing somewhere between a second striker and an attacking midfielder… admirably so.  But contrast this with the midfield players at Manchester City and Chelsea, and the difference is embarrassing.

So the power of expectation — from both the pro- and anti- United camps — is such that Moyes was always going to be considered a failure, no matter what happened.  Yet despite United’s bad start, there are still a lot of positives and/or mitigators:

– They have won five games on the trot, including a comeback against Hull that was reminiscent of the “old” United

– One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s parting gifts to Wayne Rooney was to publicly expose the player’s demand for a transfer.  Moyes has had his troubles with the Scouser as well, suing Rooney for comments he made in his autobiography.  But despite all of that, the England international has remained a professional, stepping up in place of the injured (or disgruntled, or both, depending on whom you believe) Robin Van Persie.

– United are looking comfortable in cup competitions.  They open their FA Cup campaign at home against a struggling Swansea City, plus they play a semi-final League Cup match-up against bottom dwellers Sunderland. They also progressed comfortably through the Champions League group stages and will now face Olympiakos, the weakest opponent in the Round of 16.

– The club sits in 7th place with 31 points, but they are only eight points off the top and five points from a Champions League spot.  In such a topsy-turvy year, the season is not necessarily a write-off.

 The players seem to be buying into Moyes’ leadership, and in return, the Scot seems to be abandoning the conservative football that he favoured at Everton.  But there will continue to be growing pains.  A cup or two seem to be reasonable goals this season.  That may not be enough to satisfy the average United fan that has only known winning.  It may also be fodder for opposing fans who enjoy the schadenfreude of a former champion struggling with a new identity.  That’s not to say they are going to push David Moyes out: it’s simply not the United way.  But the Sisyphean task of managing expectations on both sides of the divide may mean that Moyes faces a long journey in the wilderness of public opinion.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Pieces of Eight: Why Spain is So Money and Other Euro Observations

Well that was fun.  Lots of goals, an upset or two, some behind-the-scenes drama… and for what? At the end of three weeks, the new Champions are the same as the old Champions.  The footballing universe is balanced and unsullied, and in six weeks, we can go back to watching club football.  In the meantime, enjoy my little observations about the highlight of the summer.  Don’t you dare mention the Olympics!!!

1) This Spanish side may be the best international side ever.  Duh.
Euro.  World Cup.  Euro.  Nineteen players in the side have now won both tournaments.  More than half of those players will still be under 30 by the time they reach Rio in two years time (not to mention next year’s Confederations Cup).  An average possession rate of at least 65%.  A side that has gone 646 minutes without conceding a goal in a knock-out match.  This is more than a “Golden Generation”;  this is utter and complete dominance.

2) Buffon and Pirlo are studs.
Despite every indication that they would do the opposite, the Italians (the Italians?) took the game to Spain, trying to play offensive and open-pitch football (seriously, the Italians?!?).  Prandelli’s tactics allowed the world to see Andrea Pirlo’s incredible play-making abilities. Pirlo is a big reason why Juventus won the Scudetto this season, and AC Milan (his old team) didn’t.   Meanwhile, Buffon faced a barrage of attempts, especially in the final’s second half. When the winners were getting their medals, Buffon was stoic in defeat.

Prandelli: “Balotelli has to learn to accept defeat.”

3) Balotelli needs to grow up.
He may have put on a clinic against ze Germans… but Mario is still a super baby.  He stormed off the pitch after Italy lost against the Spaniards and was the last person to receive his medal.  That’s too bad because he had an exemplary tournament.   Colourful players with heaps of talent have always made the game more interesting…. but Balotelli can be a detriment to his team(s).  Luckily for both Italy and Manchester City, his behaviour may mellow with time.  Witness another former petulant son in…

4) Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’s an incredible player… he just needs a team.
Like the Italians, the Portuguese weren’t expected to do much.   Critics assumed that Ronaldo would once again be unable to replicate his club form for A Seleccao.  But not only did Ronaldo have a great tournament, he showed tremendous un-Ronaldo-like restraint as teams gave him a kicking.   Old Ronaldo would have flopped around like a fish.   New Ronaldo recorded the most shots in the tournament.   Too bad that he also hit the wood work more than any other player… and let’s not even mention the penalty shot that never was.

5) The end of the Van Marwijk era means the end of the Van Bommel era, et al.  Praise Cheebus.
The Dutch gaffer opted for pretty much the same side as he used in the World Cup. Oops.

Before the tournament even began, the players exhibited symptoms of Dutch Disease: an in-fighting both in and out of the public spotlight that hobbled everyone. Their performance on the pitch reflected the lack of unity and tactics.  One hopes that it wasn’t nepotism that led Van Marwijk to start his over-the-hill son-in-law Mark Van Bommel.  The captain sums up all that’s wrong with the Oranje:  old, dirty, and petulant.  A mid-tournament rebellion in the dressing room, followed by an early exit,would make the Dutch this year’s France, except that…

6) France is this year’s France.
After a disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa, you’d think Les Tricoloures would avoid their petty squabbles and unite under Laurent Blanc. Malheureusement, it was not to be. Reports of a dressing room bust-up after losing to Sweden in their final group-stage match was followed by Samir Nasri’s unseemly outburst towards a reporter. A tidy loss to the eventual champions meant the end of another tournament… and the dismissal of another manager.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… Someone tell the French players.

The other sad Mario…

7) Das Jahr der Schrecken for Bayern Munich players.
What a season for the eight men out who play for both the German national team and Bayern Munich.  Bayern suffered a double domestic loss to Borussia Dortmund in both the Bundesliga and the DKB-Pokal, followed by a baffling defeat at Chelsea’s hands at home in the Champions League.  Top that off with Germany’s semi-final loss to unfancied Italy and they face a tough summer staring into their schnitzel.  Mario Gomez even lost out on the Euro Golden Boot because he tied Fernando Torres in goals and assists, but took more minutes to do it!  Scheisse!

8) England, thanks for coming out.
Joe Hart and Steven Gerrard played well.  Surprisingly, so did John Terry.  Andy Carroll scored the same amount of goals as Wayne Rooney, but played 50 less minutes.  Theo Walcott had a game to remember.  Now let’s never mention this again.

Brent Lanthier

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A very Italian England

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In advance of their quarter-final showdown at Euro 2012 this Sunday, Azzurri midfielder Daniele De Rossi has described Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions as “a very Italian team,” Clearly, he wasn’t talking about Wayne Rooney’s hair. Or, for that matter, his dress sense.

Still, although England aren’t exactly Canali chic in their style of dress, they have been typically Italian in their style of play so far, tough to beat at the back (as our Kevin predicted) and quick to strike on the counter, as I wrote in this week’s column for Toro Magazine.

So, will it be enough to get England past Italy and into the semifinals? Or are we looking at 120 minutes of 0-0, and a penalty shootout defeat? Sadly, my money is on the latter scenario.

Ian Harrison

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