Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hmmmm.....maybe trouble ahead for OL

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/soccer/10/24/bc.eu.spt.soc.lyon.fred.ap/index.html

Fred out for 2 months...this could prove difficult for the aspirations for Lyon. Might force the club to look for a striker during the winter transfer window. I could argue that Fred has been a top 5 striker in Europe - Henry, Saha, Van Nistelroy, Drogba and Fred (no particular order).

These five strikers have been scoring domestically and in European competitions.

I am not sure that Carew will be a player that can fill in for Fred and keep up the pace. Can Lyon continue playing at their current level without their talesmatic striker? Can a combination of Wiltord, Carew and Govou make up for the lose of Fred? And will the youngsters Ben Arfa and Benzema get a chance for regular first team action?

If any team can navigate this, it is Lyon. I do not think that the lose of Fred will impact their domestic run, but it could impact what they do in Europe. Lyon has enough of a cushion where they should not need Fred to get through to the knock out stages. With the knock out stages starting in Feb, Lyon should have a healthy Fred ready to go.

But again it is a chink in the armor....

Olympique Lyon Juggernaut

After this weekends demolishing of their nearest competitor, OM, by a 4-1 score it seems apparant that the French Ligue 1 is going to be won by Lyon. This is amazing that before the
winter break it would appear that a major championship is almost out of reach for all the other competitors. Lyon is looking to win a record 6th title in a row. The funny part is the last two clubs to have won the championship prior to Lyon's amazing run are in danger of relegation - Monaco and Nantes.

Lyon now sits 8 points ahead of Marseilles. Having beaten Zidane's home town team at the Stade Velodrome, Lyon will receive OM back at the friendly confines of Lyon on the return match. With other traditional rivals: PSG, Bordeaux, Monaco, and Lille at least 10 points back, it is hard to invision a melt down by OL. Lyon is also cruising in its group stages for the Champions League. They have a maximum 9 points from 3 games, including a demolishon of Real Madrid. The question becomes, can Houllier find the right formula to get Lyon into the Champions League semifinals, and further? The last 3 Champions Leagues Lyon has crashed out, twice against PSV and once against AC Milan. All three times they had their fates in their hands. With this domestic and Champions League group stage cushions, this might give Lyon an opportunity to rest some players and focus on the knock out stages.

This might be the best opportunity for Lyon to achieve European glory. They do not have the talent that Chelsea has, but they play better as a team. Barca, without Eto'o seems to be missing a gear. Bayern is strong but are still trying to find their way and Podoloski has not put his stamp on the team. Manchester United looks very dangerous, but with Rooney in a funk that might come back to haunt them.

I think an Arsenal - Lyon finals would be tantelizing.....not sure who I would root for, probably Lyon since my loyalty needs to go to the team from France as opposed to the Frenchies from Northern London.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Another Frenchie to Arsenal?

No I am not talking about Ribery heading to North London, I read an interesting interview with a French football commenatator he floated the idea of Sebastian Frey as a replacement for Lehman at Arsenal. Not a far fetched idea. Lehman is not spring chicken, and Frey is playing for punished Fiorentina in Italy. A move to the Premiership could be exactly what he needs.

Frey is young 26, and has worlds of talent having played much of his career in Italy for Parma, Inter and Fiorentina. Could solve some Arsenal's long term goalkeeping issue. He is also a product of the Cannes developement system, the same system that produced the likes of Vieira, Micoud, Faubert, Escude, Clichy, Luis Fernandez and one Zinedine Zidane....not bad.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Euro qualifiers - not all is sunny for the British isles

Well well well, how things change after 72 hours. As of last Sunday, you thought that Scotland was ready to pack their bags for Austria - Switzerland Euro 2008. Yet after a 2-0 correction in the Ukraine all things are up for grabs once again.

After today's matches Group B is completely up for grabs. Scotland 9 pts, France 9pts, Italy 7 pts, Ukraine 6pts. Ukraine has a game in hand, and since it comes against the Faroe Islands we need to assume that on equal matches the Ukrainians would also be at 9 Points.

From everything I have been able to read, the Scots tried to play defensive versus the Ukrainians but unlike this Saturday at home against the French they succumbed to the Ukrainian attacks. I think the Scots will be very hard pressed to continue staying atop the group if they cannot play a style other than 10 men defending. With a displacement to Italy, after a home game versus Georgia (this could be a trap game if the Scots are looking ahead to their match in Italy), the Scots might find themselves in trouble. By the spring of 2007 the Scots will find themselves 3rd or even 4th in the group.

The World Cup champions won an expected 3-1 victory at Georgia. However, not all is well with the Azurri. Held 1-1 at half time they could only find the winning goals after the Georgians went down to 10 men. I think this victory might give the Italians a false sense that all is well in the Italian camp. Receiving the Scots will be a huge test for the Italians. After a poor 1-1 draw with Lithuania in Naples to start the qualifying the campaign, the Italians will be hard pressed to find those lost 2 points. However I think the schedule is kind for the Italians, they will only have one qualifying match during the next international break, while the Scots, who the Italians will be receiving will have to defeat the Georgians first before meeting Italy in Southern European. They will then get a "break" facing the Faroe Islands. While the schedule is kind, the Azurri have not demonstrated the form shown during the World Cup.

I think that France and Ukraine are in solid positions to secure their places in the group. First, the Ukraine gets Faroe Islands and Lithuania upon the restart of qualifying. They can expect to be at least at 10 points after these matches (assuming at worst a victory and draw), but they should have 12 points from 5 games when they travel to Paris to meet Les Bleus.

The French will have a difficult game at Lithuania, where they will most likely face another defensive minded team forcing the French to find the offensive solution. Much of what they have seen the past two games. While not much should be taken from the 5-0 defeat of the Faroe Islands, it was good for the squad that the 4 strikers scored, including a brace by Trezegol and a goal from Anelka. Again the trip to the Eastern European nation will be difficult, but France should be hosting the Ukrainians with 12 points in hand, then knowing they receive Georgia at home a team they dominated away. With the Scots having to make a difficult trip to Italy, the spring should find France - Italy - Ukraine at top of the group with the Scots sliding back to the middle. This group just demonstrates that qualifying is never easy.

Other Notes: England beaten by Croatia, one of the goals was a Neville own goal (supposedly Robinson made some strong saves to keep the score line at 2-0), the trip home will not be a pleasant one for the team members nor Steve McClaren. If the heat was strong under the backside of McClaren, it will only get hotter. After a poor 0-0 draw versus Macedonia at Old Trafford, and now a 2-0 defeat at Croatia, the fortunes of the English national team will be put in question. In a rather weak group, England should be running away with this group. They should still qualify, but it will be a nail bitter for the British....A surprising lose to Poland throws Portugal into a precarious position fighting for their survival in Group A....In another surprise result, Malta earns 3 points in a surprise 2-1 victory versus Hungary, it is a long time from the Flying Magyars of Puskas, a team that was the class of international football in the 1950s.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

France - Faroe Islands

France should emerge from tomorrow's game with the full 3 points....but much will be judged on how France goes about winning this game. Short of a monumental upset, France should be able to score against this minnow. But if what occured in the 2000 Euro qualifications, when France needed a last minute penalty to defeat another minnow Andorra 1-0, should befall this team, we might have the vice-champion of the world in turmoil.

I think Domenech should start Trezeguet with Henry. The reason why Trezeguet did not see enough of the ball on Saturday was the Scots were defending so deep that he would have 2 -3 players marking him, rather than throwing the ball into the penalty area, France looked to weave Arsenalesc passes into the ideal shooting situation. With passers like Ribery, Malouda, Vieira, Henry, Sagnol, etc the French need to take more chances lobbing crosses into the box, looking for Trezeguet to latch onto one, forcing the defense to come out more on the crossers, which will open up channels for the speed of Ribery, Henry, and Malouda.

We will see 11 defenders behind the ball, let us see if Domenech can figure out how to get the ball into the goal this time.

Ribery to Arsenal?

No surprise but there are some stories circulating that Ribery will be headed to North London during the January transfer window. The whispers were more than that during the past summer. After an electric World Cup, Ribery became the player whose stock rose the most. Prior to the tournament there were questions whether or not Ribery would even be selected to the French squad.

I think Ribery would fit in perfectly into the Wenger system, he has the speed, passing and toughness that the Premiership requires. I think his season spent in Galatassary has also given him a taste of brutal derbys he will experience in England, not sure Manchester United - Arsenal matches the hatred between Fenenbrache - Galatassary.....

The one red flag would be Ribery's qualification for playing in Europe, he already played for Marseilles during the UEFA cup...but Wenger would make this move for the long term.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Euro shake up, qualifying is never easy!

Ouch...France suffers a difficult 1-0 loss to Scotland. Ireland gets humiliated by Cyprus 5-2! England held scoreless at home to Macedonia. Spain humiliated again losing 2-0 to Sweden. And the world cup champs finally find the winning ways.

All this shows is that the world of international football and qualifying for major tournaments is a marathon not a sprint.

I was fortunate, or unfortunate to once again watch Les Bleus live on my TV5 from Glasgow.

Some thoughts on the match -

France completely dominated the Scots. Although the Scots played their game plan to perfection, playing France defensive the entire game and hoping to hit on the break or on a dead ball. Against a superior team this does not always work, but it can lead to results as today.

Henry was unlucky with a direct kick in the first 8 minutes that struck the post. He was having his way against the Scottish defense drawing two dangerous direct kicks in the first 15 minutes with electric runs. Vieira was off side on a goal, he was barely in an off side position and could have held his run by a split second, the Scotland defense was absent. The telling sign was seeing Claude Makelele carry the ball up into the Scottish half most of the first 45 minutes. Scotland was content to send 10 players behind the ball, 5 across the back and 4 midfielders in front of them. Their lone striker, McFadden, when the ball came to him found himself taking on the entire French defense alone. With Boumsong stuck to his back pocket it was virtually impossible to imagine an danger for the French. And when it did come it was primarily due to French mistakes and not Scottish ingenuity. At half it seemed only a matter of time before the French found the back of the net.

The second half saw much of the same. However the easy defensive first half lulled France into a false sense of security. It was clear that the only way France would concede would be on a dead ball, and that is exactly what happened. On a bunged corner kick, France allowed Gary Caldwell to beat Abidal to the ball and squeeze the ball past Coupet (a shot I would have expecting the French #1 to do a little better on). The last 4 goals France has conceded in official games have been on such plays: Penalty Shot against Spain in the world cup, Header off a corner against Italy in the world cup, Header off indirect kick against Italy in Euro qualification and finally the goal today off corner. This is a disturbing trend because the last two in particular the French defense looked lost.

I think the victory meant more for Scotland than the loss should mean for France. Scotland now sit alone atop the group with 9 points, France remain second with 6 points...with Italy winning against Ukraine they are back in the mix with 4 points. After this Wednesday we should have a better idea if the Scots can run away with this group. Scotland have a troublesome match away to Ukraine, while France are home to Faeroe Islands and Italy host Georgia. Assuming France wins, and if they cannot then they are in trouble! Italy, again assuming they are back to form, defeats Georgia. If Scotland wins, they have 12 points but if they draw or lose, they are only at 10 or 9 points while France should be at 9 and Italy at 7....this group was deemed the Group of Death and it is living up to the hype. It will be interesting to see how the Scots can hold up to a long qualifying campaign, will they be the Ukraine of the WC qualifiers a team that came out of no where to win a difficult group, or Wales from a few years ago, a nation that teased its fans only to fall short at the end?

Other thoughts: Spain is in real trouble, losing to Sweden 2-0, there remains plenty of time for the Spaniards to right the ship in a group that should not be too difficult, but the 3-2 loss to Northern Ireland may prove their downfall...England draws at home to Macedonia and now have to travel to Croatia, not an easy task, seems like the "euphoria" after the defeat of Andorra has lost its luster ... Ireland losing to Cyprus (granted Ireland was wracked by injuries) is awful let alone giving up 5 goals in the process, not sure the Irish have recovered from missing out on the World Cup thanks to the Swiss ... Holland draws with Bulgaria, after only defeating Luxembourg 1-0, and after having players refuse call ups (Van Nistelrooy) not all is well with Oranje, Van Basten better figure this out soon, he has to much talent at his disposal to make this a difficult qualification...Look out but the defending Euro Champs are playing better, a meager 1-0 victory versus Moldova made everyone groan, but a 1-0 victory versus Norway seems to point the Hellenic squad in the right direction, the upcoming Greece-Turkey match looms very large.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Euro Qualifiers

Another full week of Euro Qualifing matches:

http://www.uefa.com/competitions/euro/qualifying/index.html

I hope we see fewer Germany - San Marino matches....one sided shows, speaking of San Marino they will meet the Czechs, who will be hungry for a win. There are some intrigueing games, especially Spain - Sweden, two struggling national teams both needing good results. The matches I am interested in:

France - Scotland: Both nations have the full 6 points from their first games. France having beaten Georgia and Italy, Scotland defeated the Faroe Islands and Lithuania (the same Lithuania that held Italy to a draw in Naples). This game is what we call a "trap" game in the ole US of A. France will be headed for a very challenging ground to play. Scotland sees this as a great oppotunity to steal a victory from the World Cup runner ups. The Scotish fans will be, as always, vocal and supportive of their team. Playing in Scotland will prove a stern test for the French. However Scotland has some injury issues, more than the French. France will need to weather what I expect a very emotional start of the match, if they can weather what I expect to be a blistering first 20 minutes they will be on the right path. What I fear is Scotland's ability to exploit dead ball situations while France continues to struggle defending these set pieces. The game might hinge on these plays. Les Bleus should emerge with 3 points, but they will not be easily won.

France 2 - Scotland 0. Goals from Trezeguet and late goal from Ribery.

Italy - Ukraine: If there was ever a "must" win game this early in the qualifying rounds this is it for the Azurri. They have 1 point from 2 matches, and that came from a poor 1-1 draw with Lithuania in Naples! The Italians then received a "correction" by Les Bleus in Paris 3-1, which could have been 4 or 5 goals to 1 (still makes the WC finals painful). Ukraine wants to show that their 1/4 final at the World Cup was not a fluke. They currently sit with 3 points from one hard fought match versus Georgia. The game is the second for Italy at home, this time at Roma. Italy cannot afford to drop any more points at home. While Ukraine just needs to get 1 point to see this displacement to Italy as a huge success. Ukraine will also be motivated to gain some World Cup vengence after succombing 3-0 during the 1/4 finals. I think this game will be very difficult for Italy, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on the team and with the still dark cloud of match fixing hovering over the Azzuri I see another poor performance.

Ukraine 0 - Italy 0, ugly draw drives Italian home fans crazy...

Merci FaFa

Fabien Barthez hangs up his gloves and cleats for both club and country. This decision does not come as a surprise after no club seemed interested in picking up the bald keeper's services. While I have not been the biggest supporter of Barthez recently, and he supplanted Bernard Lama a keeper I was a fan of, one cannot down play the important role he played in France's success the past few years.

Barthez was pivotal in the French victory in the 1998 world cup and 2000 european cup. Many remember the two goals scored by Zidane to beat Bresil in the 1998 finals, what I will keep in mind was a spectacular save Barthez made on Bebeto's header early in the game off a corner. Had this goal been scored it would have changed the entire outlook of this final. Barthez also made a very courageous intervention on Ronaldo (picture above) that saw both players laying sprawling on the pitch in pain. The last World Cup run was also the Zidane show, but had Barthez not made a strong, half blind (due to the solar glare) save late in the game versus Switerland France might have never emerged from the group stages. Barthez is also one of the most prolific domestic French keeper having won league championships in both France and England (Monaco and Manchester United) as well as a Champion's Cup with Marseille. However his career was also mared by banishments for drug use and spitting on a referee (during a friendly!). He will also be remembered for his unorthodox manners and at times trick or treat goalkeeping...

Love him or fear him, Barthez should be thanked for what he brought to French and World football.

Merci FAFA

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Not all is well with the French

The past 6 months have been a real roller coaster ride for Les Bleus. A horrible world cup qualifying campaign, saved many would say by the return of the old guard: Zidane, Makelele and Thuram. France would qualify at the last possible moment (having to beat Cyprus by a large margin while hoping that Ireland-Switerland did not end in other than a draw). Then France saw a difficult preparation campaign - questions swirling around Coupet vs Barthez (Coupet even left camp threatening to quit the national team). With Barthez finally winning out the starting role....a very questionable selection. The world cup also did not get off to a great start, needing to defeat a weak Togo squad to qualify for the knock out stage...the rest we know is history with a glorious run to the finals, only to cruely lose in shoot out.

It is clear that this amazing run secured Domenech as manager of the national team. However I still scratch my head about some of the activities that are occuring and still swirling around the national team. Granted, France has come out of the starting blocks for the Euro qualifiers with an expected easy victory at Georgia and with an exceptional 3-1 victory versus Italy. A game where France could have easily scored another 1 or 2 goals, in particular a spectacular save Buffon made on Govou in the second half.

Domenech has angered managers such as Houllier, Wenger and Mourinho. Domenech recalled Makelele, a player that had announced his international retirement post World Cup, ending up winning the arm wrestling match with Chelsea to secure the midfielder's services, but in doing so appeared to have lost any good will from Mourinho and possibly alienating Makelele. Domenech then decided to play Henry for the full time in a friendly even though the Premiership had not full started and it would have been prefered by Wenger and Arsenal not to see their star striker play a full 90 minutes in a meaningless match...again not making any friends. With Houllier expressing some irration with Domenech deciding to call up 8 players from the French champion, yet no communications between both managers. Finally, news today out of the French camp is that Coupet still has a major chip on his shoulder with regards to his backup status during the World Cup.

With all these incidents one has to wonder if things go poorly for France will Domenech lose his team and lose his ability to manage the national team. I have never been the biggest fan of the players Domenech has called up, nor his system of play...however results have proven me wrong...so far. Also, Domenech has never been a "conventional" manager, believing in astrology etc to manage and select his squad. Maybe too much is made of these incidents, we all know that The Portugese Man of Whine, Mourinho, complains about everything and sees everyone against him (and his "poor" club). His use of the term "slavery" in mention of the Makelele call ups were a little over the top, but expected from such a bag of hot air. Houllier and Wenger are more rational managers, but both managers are also masters of using the press to get what they want and get their messages across to others.

These issues always arise when it comes to the club versus country debate in international football. However I think Domenech needs to heed the warning signs, and maybe look to approach the personal side of being a manager with a different tact. He does manage one of the European power houses in football, having come in second at the World Cup makes that spot light's glare even stronger. Domenech has the talent pool to do something special, but he needs to focus on the football as much as possible, allowing issues such as phone calls and strong arm tactics to get players on the field will only distract from this.
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