April 1, 2020

More World Cup Controversy!

Yesterday I watched another day of World Cup football, and again there was more conversation surrounding the officiating than there was about the quality of the games. A disallowed Frank Lampard goal in the England v. Germany game changed the complexion of the match, leading to a 4-1 Germany victory.

In Argentina’s 3-1 victory over Mexico, Argentine striker, Carlos Tévez, scored Argentina’s first goal of the match from an obvious offside position. Again, a goal at this stage of a match changed how Mexico played tactically and defended subsequently.

I was chatting with my friend, “Tommy D,” the other day. Like me, Tommy’s a big sports fan, but relatively new to soccer. He explained he started following the World Cup, but was baffled by the officiating. All his points and questions were valid and, unfortunately, I had no good answers for him. What a shame for fans old and new to the game that terrible officiating is the main talking point.

Countries wait four years and go through trying qualifying rounds to reach the World Cup. Players leave their club teams and drag their butt’s around the world to help their country qualify. People spend their hard-earned money to support their teams and to go to games. Fans travel thousands of miles around the globe to cheer their teams in what is supposed to be the pinnacle of sports. This is the planet’s most watched sport. It is not too much to ask that we have competent officiating.

It’s not a complicated sport but—like all world class athletics—challenging to officiate. Nevertheless, FIFA, football’s governing body continually resists sensible changes like goal line technology and extra officials on the pitch. We don’t care how many officials it takes, just get it right, man! Most other international sports adopted these changes years ago. Wake up FIFA! Wake up Sepp Blatter, you jackass.

Footnote:

I believe the best teams prevailed in both matches referenced above, which is important, but we could very well have had more exciting matches were the officiating competent.

2010 World Cup Vignettes: What we know about Group C

General:

• World powerhouse, England, and a scrappy, up-and-coming US team beat up on Slovenia and Algeria and slide easily into the knockout round, right? Nope!

• We have controversy; we have drama; we have The Holy Grail of sports: the World Cup.

Group C:

How tasty is this? Going into the final round of group play, any of the four teams in this group still have an opportunity to advance to the knockout phase. The variables are many; therefore, I won’t elaborate on all scenarios. If I know my audience, however, here’s what most readers of this commentary need to know: the US and England advance if they defeat Algeria and Slovenia respectively (win = in).

I sense England and the U.S. handle business and move forward, but this is the World Cup. Expect the US v. Algeria to be a more open game, with both teams needing goals/points to feel secure about advancement. Slovenia may adapt a defensive strategy and “park the bus” in front of the Slovenia goal knowing they need only tie England to advance.

The hyperbole leading up to the group’s first match between England and the U.S. was insane. Soccer fans around the world filled pubs, hoisted pints and fixated on giant televisions to witness what turned out to be a decent match.

England jumped quickly into the lead when England’s captain, Steven Gerrard, tallied at the four-minute mark. Thirty-six minutes later, U.S. midfielder, Clint Dempsey, found himself with the ball at his feet, just outside England’s penalty area. Dempsey pivoted and struck the ball low and right at English keeper, Robert Green. Green initially appeared to handle the shot easily, and then the unthinkable: Green fumbled the ball and it dribbled across the goal line.

Against the run of play, the US snatched a point from the jaws of defeat and hung on to tie England 1-1. This was a tremendous result for the US as it managed to get a point against the group’s highest ranked team and would, presumably, face lesser competition in its other group matches, right? Not so fast Speed Racer.

Slovenia, the smallest country in the World Cup, scored a late goal against a 10-man Algerian team to secure first place in the group after the first round of games. Unbelievable! I don’t even know where Slovenia and Algeria are on a map.

Commentary:

We’ve heard and read much about England’s struggles to get results and the injustice suffered by the US team by a terrible piece of officiating. That’s yesterday’s news, and I hope both teams can put earlier matches behind them and focus on the task at hand.

I have to say, also, how proud I am of “Team USA” for the fight, maturity and determination exhibited. This team has no quit in them and they are—in my opinion—the best US team fielded at a World Cup final. Good on you guys regardless of what happens tomorrow. Buen suerte.

2010 World Cup Vignettes: What we know about Group B

General:

• One thoroughbred; three hopefuls

• The greatest players don’t always make the best tacticians or coaches.

Group B:

My beloved Argentina appears to be the class of the group. A two-time World Cup winner, Argentina, boasts a cadre of talent, particularly at the striker position, and they have the pedigree and a belief they can win.

Several things concern me about Argentina, however. I don’t see solid tactical decisions in the form of in-game adjustments, formations and substitutions. I see old players in important central midfield positions being asked to perform beyond their capabilities. I see a Swiss cheese defense that better teams will expose as Argentina progresses to the knockout round.

Coach Diego Maradona is god in Argentina, and he brings passsion and a tremendous desire to win to his team. I also commend his commitment to attacking football; however, this team needs better defensive organization and discipline and a coach willing to recognize it. Oh Diego, you will ultimately break my heart.

Nigeria is the only African team in the group, and the only team with little to no chance of advancing to the knockout round. Nigeria has no points from two of the three games they’ll play in the group stage. While not impossible, it’s highly unlikely the “Super Eagles” advance beyond the group stage.

That leaves Greece and South Korea to battle for the remaining spot in the knockout round. South Korea beat Greece 2-0 in Group B’s first game; nevertheless, I give both teams about even odds of advancing. Greece bounced back with a 2-1 win over Nigeria, while Argentina trounced South Korea 4-1.

Greece finishes the group stage against Argentina, and North Korea finishes with Nigeria. Flip a coin or take your pick. Will Nigeria battle South Korea tooth and nail to salvage a result for national pride? Can Greece surprise an Argentinean team, possibly resting important players for the knockout round?

I know who I think will advance but, like most of you, I have no crystal ball handy. That’s what makes watching the Cup so great. Watch and enjoy, amigos.

2010 World Cup Vignettes: What we know about Group A

General:

Vuvuzelas, present at every Cup game, are among the most annoying noisemakers on Earth. It’s like watching a football game from inside a bee’s nest.

South Africa has done a solid job of preparing for and pulling off the World Cup. Several months ago there were worries galore. However, logistics, transportation and security all seem top notch, so far.

Group A:

This is a delicious group.

Uruguay is no joke. Top scorer, Diego Forlan, scores goals aplenty for Athletico Madrid, a Spanish club team from one of the best leagues in the world. Forlan already tallied two goals against host nation, South Africa.

Countryman, Luis Suraez, plays for Dutch giants, Ajax, and he’ll surely generate plenty of interest from big European teams following the cup. He’s yet to prove himself of the World Cup stage, however.

Uruguay, a previous cup winner, is well-coached, has balance, poise and enough talent to reach the knockout round. This is a sleeper team to watch.

South Africa managed a 1-1 tie against Mexico in its first game, a tremendous achievement for the host nation. Unfortunately, the Bafana Bafana simply don’t have the talent or pedigree to progress from this strong group. The South African’s must win against France to make it out of group play and, despite not playing well, France still has too much talent and experience for South Africa.

Mexico managed only a tie against South Africa in opening round play, so it’s pending game with France is critical, for both teams. The team winning the Mexico/France match should advance to the knockout round with Uruguay.

France has more talent on its bench than most teams have period. France’s problem: its coach, Raymond Domenech. Domenech’s players dislike him; the French Football Association dislikes him; and French fans dislike him. His replacement as national team coach waits in the wings until after the tournament. I can’t help but believe this ambiguity, ultimately, stunts France’s chances for progression.

That said, I have no prediction for the France v. Mexico game. There are plenty of intangibles in play. My mind tells me the talent and pedigree of France prevails; my heart tells me not to underestimate Mexico’s passion and desire to win. Those variables generally equate to a terrific game. Let’s hope so for the fans of the world’s most beautiful game.

Inter and FC Bayern meet in Champions League Final

UEFA Champions League
Home and home competition between Europe’s top football (soccer) clubs from each of Europe’s top domestic leagues: England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, etc.

Purpose: Determine Europe’s top club team.

Bayern Munich v. Lyon:

Bayern Munich punched its ticket to the Champions League final Tuesday night behind a natural hat-trick from Croatian striker, Ivica Oli. Oli tallied in the 26th, 66th, and 77th to propel Bayern to a comfortable win in front of its home fans at Stade Gerland.

Lyon faced a tough task from the outset, as Bayern brought a 1-0 lead into the game from the first leg. Lyon knew it had to score at least two goals while keeping the German giants scoreless, a challenging endeavor under the circumstances.

Bayer’s dominance, however, ensured the away goals rule never came into play, winning easily 3-0.

Between Oli’s goals Bayern’s mercurial Dutchman, Arjen Robben, wreaked havoc down Lyon’s right side, making slashing runs into the area and testing Lyon goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris. Bayern midfielder and German international, Bastian Schweinsteiger, also brought the crowd to its feet with 25-yard cannon shot that sailed just over the crossbar.

So, it’s off to the finals for Germany’s most well-known and most decorated football club, where they’ll face Italian opponents, Inter Milan.

Barcelona v. Inter Milan:

Inter Milan joined Bayern in finals by defeating defending champions, FC Barcelona, widely regarded as the world’s best club team.

Inter laid the foundation for its championship appearance by bringing a 3-1 lead to the Camp Nou for leg-two. The Catalans played shoddy defense in leg-one and were, quite frankly, outplayed by Inter in the first game as well.

Unfortunately, leg-two epitomized why professional football/soccer is still viewed as a tertiary sport in the United States:

1. This game had more theatrics than Broadway. Players on both teams dived all over the field at the slightest contact. There were grown men rolling on the ground, writhing in thespian pain, only to magically recuperate milliseconds later, jump to their feet and sprint 20 yards downfield.

2. One of the dives described above resulted in the harsh sending off of Inter midfielder, Thiago Motta, in the 28th minute. After Barca’s Sergio Busquets and Motta jostled for a ball, Busquets threw himself onto the pitch, holding his face. The match referee bit hook, line and sinker, issuing Motta a straight red card. I hope the referee watches the tape of the incident and is justifiably embarrassed. That single call impacted everything that remained of the match.

3. Now playing 10 v. 11, Inter employed a tactic football pundits refer to as “parking the bus.” After Motta’s premature departure, Inter immediately adopted a total defensive posture, positioning all of its players in or around its 18-yard box. While sound tactically, it has as much spectator appeal as watching paint dry.

4. Barcelona held possession of the ball for just under 80 percent of the game. Nearly 90 percent of that time spent dribbling and passing just outside Inter’s goal area, but unable to penetrate the wall of Inter players.

Not even the amazing Lionel Messi could save this game from itself. The little Argentine tried repeatedly to pry open Inter’s defense, but even his creativity fell short of solving the Inter puzzle. The current World Player of the Year managed only one dangerous attempt on goal, drawing a world-class, fingertip save from Inter keeper, Julio César.

Barca defender Gerard Pique finally broke through in the 84th minute. Showing true professional poise, Pique settled a Xavi pass and pulled it back from a sliding defender and the onrushing César and coolly put the ball into the goal.

The Pique goal brought the Catalan fans to their feet, but it was too little too late. There were no more miracle goals left in Barca. Final score Barcelona 1 Inter 0. Inter wins based on the 3-2 aggregate score.

Barcelona Triunfos

Wednesday, May 27th

UEFA Champions League Final:

Barcelona Crowned Champions of Europe:

    On the surface it had all the elements of a delicious match, including a plethora of tasty subplots. In the end it turned out to be a fitting game showcasing two of football’s legendary sides, Barcelona and Manchester United.

    The Questions:

    Many pundits billed the game as a showdown between the world’s two best players: Manchester United’s brilliant, Portuguese superstar and current World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s diminutive, Argentine magician, Lionel Messi. Which of these two tremendous players would impose his will on the game?

    Manchester United, reigning European Champion, was attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles in the history of the competition. Could the defending champions do what no other team previously accomplished?

    Barcelona was attempting to achieve an elusive treble. Having already won their domestic, Spanish league championship and the annual Copa del Rey competition, was there enough gas in the tank for Barcelona to win the Champions League?

    Legendary Barcelona player and current manager Pep Guardiola was a three-year-old when Sir Alex Ferguson began his coaching career. Could the Catalan’s first-year manager match wits with one of the games most brilliant tacticians?

    Even at their best, Barcelona’s strength is not defending. With four regular defenders missing—either to injury or suspension—could Barcelona piece together a patchwork defense to blunt United’s potent attack?

    Barcelona, while attacking well, looked defensively vulnerable and a bit frail against Chelsea in their Champions League semifinal. Only a miracle strike at the death by Spanish international Andres Iniesta secured Barcelona’s place in the championship game. Many, including Barcelona’s players and supporters, considered themselves fortunate to escape the Chelsea game. How would this play on the psyche of the Barcelona team and Pep Guardiola?

    Entering the championship game Manchester United appeared to be the more balanced team: potent in the attack, solid throughout midfield and stout defensively. Would this balance trump what is the best attacking club football team in the world? In La Liga play alone, Samuel Eto’o, Messi and Thierry Henry combined to score an amazing 71 goals. And Barcelona’s goal differential in domestic league play was 70 goals. Their closest competitor, Real Madrid, had a goal differential of 32.

    My Prediction:

    I believed the team scoring first would win. I thought if Barcelona scored first it would open the game, which suits Barcelona’s offensive style. If Manchester United scored first, I thought United could play a more tactical game and concentrate on defending, looking to catch Barcelona on quick counterattacks, an area in which Manchester United excels.

    The Game:

    For the first 10 minutes of the game United was the hungrier of the teams, dominating play and controlling possession. Watching those initial minutes primed me for what appeared to be the pending “Ronaldo Show.” A blazing free-kick by Ronaldo befuddled Barcelona keeper, Victor Valdes, and Park Ji-sung narrowly missed shuffling the ball into the Barcelona net.

    Ronaldo had several other close attempts, once dragging the ball just wide of the goal and a diving Valdes and again shooting wide from distance. In the first 15 minutes alone, Ronaldo had no less than five tries on goal. Had this pattern continued, United were sure to secure the first goal and take control of the game.
    Against the early run of play, however, Cameroon international, Samuel Eto’o, took a perfectly weighted pass from Iniesta, cut inside of United defender, Nemanja Vidic, and then held off Michael Carrick as he pushed the ball with just enough pace to beat united keeper, Edwin van der Sar. Barcelona 1, Manchester United 0.
    Suddenly buoyed by Eto’o’s goal, Barcelona seized control of the game. For the remainder of the first half and for the rest of the game, Barcelona held the lion’s share of possession.
    Down a goal, United were unable to focus on a counterattacking strategy. In the second half Ferguson introduced Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Paul Scholes, hoping to generate a greater scoring threat, but Barcelona’s defense was up to the task. My Man of the Match, Barcelona captain, Carlos Puyol, was seemingly everywhere, supporting the attack and snuffing out United’s few chances.

    Meanwhile, the slick, flowing passing for which Barcelona is known was evident all over the pitch. Whether it was Messi, Xavi or Iniesta creating opportunities, Barcelona outplayed United in every facet of the game. When Messi headed in a superb cross from Xavi at the seventy-minute mark, the game was all but over. Barcelona 2, Manchester United 0.
    For a competition typically characterized by caution and conservative play, this match deviated from the norm. Congratulations to both Manchester United and Barcelona for presenting a game worthy of these two great sides.

    Early commentary from pundits following the game had United not playing its best football. This may be so; however, United showed spirit and courage in playing attacking football. Barcelona deserves the championship and was clearly the better team. The Catalans took the game by the throat and executed a football clinic.

    On their game, Barcelona plays—without a doubt—the most entertaining brand of football in the world. They play the game the way it should be played, the way most teams can only dream of playing. Yes, Barcelona play technically brilliant, flowing, attacking football, and they are the best club team in the world.

    Congratulations, Barcelona! Viven de largo los campeones!

Liverpool and Arsenal Explode

Tuesday, April 21st

 

The Premiership (EPL):

 

What it is:  England’s topflight, domestic, club football (soccer) league.

 

Arsenal v. Liverpool: Goals Galore

 

If any of you enjoy lots of goals in football matches, as I do, then you’d have loved Tuesday’s clash between Liverpool and Arsenal.  It was a terrific game, a real cracker.

 

After Andre Arshavin’s lone first half goal in the 36th minute put Arsenal ahead, things settled down with Liverpool having several close but unsuccessful first half opportunities.

 

It was in the second half, however, when the two teams exploded for a combined seven goals.  Liverpool scored on a sweet header from Spanish wunderkind, Fernando Torres, in the 49th minute and an outstanding hustle goal by, Israeli, Yossi Benayoun in the 56th putting Liverpool up 2-1.

 

Miscommunication and sloppy play between Liverpool defenders Jamie Carragher and Alvaro Arbeloa gifted Arshavin another opportunity in the 67th, and the talented Russian made Liverpool pay.  Score: 2-2.

 

More sloppy defensive play from Liverpool in the 70th minute saw Arshavin score his third goal after Arbeloa played a left-wing cross straight to Arshavin 10 yards from goal.  The Russian made his hat-trick as he drilled the shot under Liverpool keeper, Pepe Reina.  Arsenal leads 3-2.

 

Remarkably, Liverpool was level again two minutes later when Torres fired a low shot past Arsenal keeper, Fabianski. Score: 3-3.

 

Most thought Arsenal surely secured the game when Theo Walcott’s pace on the counterattack played Arshavin in for his fourth goal.  You read that correctly: four goals.  Remarkable!   Arshavin 4, Liverpool 3.

 

Astonishingly, Benayoun pushed in an equalizer at the death to salvage the tie for Liverpool.  Final score: 4-4.

 

Commentary:

 

Several things stand out in this game, most notably Arshavin’s four goals, an impressive scoring display by the young Russian.  Unfortunately, Arshavin is cup tied and unavailable to play for Arsenal as they move into the semifinals of the Champions League, the competition between the best teams from each of Europe’s top domestic leagues.

 

Liverpool scores at least four goals for the seventh time this year, including four goals in six of their last nine games.  Liverpool currently leads the Premier League with 63 goals scored this season.  It’s nice to see The Reds scoring goals in bunches for a change.

 

Liverpool’s slim chances of overtaking Manchester United as the Premiership’s top dog became even more stretched following the tie with Arsenal.  While the single point from the tie with Arsenal puts Liverpool top of the table by one point, this perch should be short-lived.  United is a single point behind Liverpool with two games in hand.  Barring a surprising collapse from United, the domestic league championship is now United’s to lose.

Chelsea Versus Liverpool What A Classic

UEFA Champions League
Home and home competition between Europe’s top football (soccer) clubs from each of Europe’s top domestic leagues: England, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, etc.

Purpose: Determine Europe’s top club team.

Tuesday night’s return leg between Chelsea and Liverpool was a cracker of a game. Chelsea held a significant advantage heading into Tuesday night’s clash at Stamford Bridge after scoring three away goals at Anfield a week ago. Chelsea up 3-1 on aggregate had scored three away goals placing them in a dominant position. Liverpool had significant work to do if they were to overcome Chelsea’s 3-1 aggregate and two away goal advantage. The fireworks to come surprised and delighted everyone.

Liverpool, trailing 3-1 from the first leg at Anfield, stunned Chelsea with two first-half goals from Fabio Aurelio and Xabi Alonso. The score now tied 3-3 on aggregate, still favored Chelsea due to the Blues 3 away goals at Anfield. Nevertheless, things were just getting started.

Three consecutive Chelsea goals in the second half from Alex, Drogba and Lampard put Chelsea in the catbird seat, leading 6-3 on aggregate and away goals. However, this amazing match took another twist when Liverpool scored twice through Lucas and Dirk Kuyt to leave them a single goal away from an unthinkable victory.

Liverpool continued to apply pressure; however, an 89th minute Chelsea goal from Frank Lampard secured the victory for Chelsea. Match score 4-4 on the night, but Chelsea goes through to the semifinals based on the 7-5 aggregate score line.

What an amazing game. For those of us who follow European football, it was a joy to see such a free flowing offensive exhibition. This is what true football is about. No stifling defensive tactics deployed here. Coaches Rafael Benitez and Guus Hiddink seemed content for the game to be a wide open affair. Kudos to the coaches.

If only all coaches and teams adopted this philosophy, perhaps football (soccer) could garner the popularity in the US it rightfully deserves.

Next up for Chelsea in the semifinals is Barcelona, Europe’s top club team in my humble opinion. I’m picking Barcelona to win the whole shebang, so Chelsea should savor tonight’s great victory. Chelsea’s Champion’s League campaign will soon end at the hands of the eventual champions, Barcelona.