Monday, December 31, 2007

Transfer window set to open...who will move

I have been lax with my ramblings, mainly due to the holiday season...granted that is no excuse when the banger and mash eaters are living the football orgy that is the holiday span in England. But the above article started me thinking about who will be on the move this January.

The rumors around Berbatov started swirling last summer, with Manchester United being the primary landing place. According to what his agent has been saying about the Bulgar wanting to play for a "big club" that means he can either stay in London either go north to Arsenal or south to Chelsea or really head north to Manchester United. Otherwise he would have to leave the friendly confines of the UK. I think that if he heads to ManU, I cannot see him getting a lot of run he will find himself behind Tevez and Rooney, and quite possibly Saha . So Berbatov will part of the second striker rotation but will not be at the same level of the pecking order as he is in Tottenham. However, when a player makes such public statements about wanting to move on and when there have been soft eyes made between the player and ManU you can assume that the move will happen.

I think if Berbatov moves it will make Anelka the next target for either Chelsea or Arsenal. I believe "The Sulk" will end up in London, but with the Blues. Why? With Drogba hurt, Sheva being Sheva and Pizarro atrocious there is a dire need for a striker at Stamford bridge. Also with the African Nation's Cup Chelsea will lose more than other clubs (other than Portsmouth), such as Kalou. In addition, money is no issue for the Siberian Blues. Will Anelka be joined at Chelsea by Ronaldino...I say yes. It is clear that the latest Brazilian fat boy has worn out his welcome at Barca and with the team built around Messi the buck tooth Brazilian is on his way out. Not sure where he will play at Stamford Bridge....but why not add another high priced overrated player?

Speaking of Arsenal, I think that Lehmann is gone, no surprise there and most likely will head back to Germany. Wenger does need to make some moves this transfer season, I really believe, as I have been saying ad nauseam that I do not see Arsenal's strikers as world beaters...of course granted Adebayour is proving me very wrong with his goal tally so far. However the main problem is - Van Persie, while massively talented, is too injury prone, Eduardo appears to be breaking out of his shell but can he keep it up? Arsenal may also need to find another keeper, assuming Lamehands is gone, because can Almunia keep this up?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Big weekend in the Premier...once again Liverpool falls short

This was the "big weekend" at least big sunday in the Prem where all of the big four were facing one another - Liverpool v Manchester United, Arsenal v Chelsea. In the end the two favorites showed why they remain favorites - Arsenal and ManU both getting 1-0 victories.

I was not able to see the ManU game but did see highlights and it would appear both sides had plenty of opportunities, of course Van Der Saar seemed at times to be playing like a drunken sailor on shore leave - staggering around the PK box looking for something he could not find without $50. But the owners of Liverpool cannot be happy seeing this prior to meeting with Benetiz who has finally somewhat shut his pie hole about needing more funds after breaking the bank in August. With a manager such as Mourinho on the side line, will Hicks and Gillett stand by much longer with the Spaniard? And could Benetiz be looking to shoot his way out of Liverpool hoping to land one of the big two jobs in Spain next season? Time will tell.

As for the Arsenal game, that I was able to watch. The game was everything that Arsenal - Chelsea games have become in recent history. A tight affair with neither side giving nor asking for quarter. It was also clear that the Arsenal players had it in for Cashley Cole, understandably so, I think he is a punk as well. Neither side dominated play nor the opportunities. So here are some observations:

  • Chelsea is not the same without a healthy Drogba. Sheva tried his best to imitate the Ivorian up front but clearly no longer has the pace nor guile needed to be a lone striker. The times he was dangerous was latching on to broken plays and putting quick strikes onto the goal. Otherwise he never really put the Arsenal defenders at risk. With the rumors of Drogba leaving next summer, Chelsea must find another striker...otherwise they will struggle with what they have.
  • The Chelsea midfield seems disjointed without Essein. Lampard, Cole, Makelele and SWP did okay individually but there did not seem to be a good rhythm or system to the Chelsea midfield. Lampard appeared to have to drop deeper to pick up the ball than he was comfortable with. Cole was everywhere but many times would find himself trying to take on too many defenders alone with no outlet. Then again, it is not surprising that without a player of Essein's caliber your team suffers.....
  • Arsenal still looks thin up front, Adebayour had some nice moments but I was never truly under the impression he would give the Chelsea back line too much trouble. He was more dangerous at the end of the match when he took advantage of the Chelsea need to throw bodies up front to get the equalizer, but otherwise I did not see a striker that put the fear of god in any defender.
  • Almunia played well ... well enough to keep Lehman on the bench. The Spaniard made some quality saves through out the match, in particular at the end when Sheva uncorked a violent free kick forcing a firm save from Almunia. While I am still not convinced he is the long term answer he at least is not making any shocking mistakes that Lehmann has been known to make.
  • There is clearly no love lost between Cashley Cole and the Arsenal lads. Seeing the challenges put on Cole and the anger in the faces of most of the Arsenal players when they came close to him it is clear that his shooting his way out of north london and then subsequent trash talking has left a bad mark on his former teammates. None more clear than the vicious challenge by Cesc at the end of the game, the scissor tackle from behind has but one intent...cause damage and pain. Clearly Cole was aware and told Cesc about it in his reaction. Then again, what should Cole expect from his former team?
  • Flamini was wise not to leave Arsenal. I think the Frenchman has demonstrated his worth this season, he is clearly the #1 foot soldier in that midfield. He tirelessly tackles and does all the dirty work necessary to allow Hleb, Rosicky and Cesc to express themselves to the fullest. His current form actually makes his appearance for France in next years Euros a real possibility...who would have thought that 8 months ago
This weekend did not determine who will win the trophy, but I think it went a long way to determine who will have a real shot....and Liverpool is not one of those teams. With the loss the Reds fell out of the top 4, Benetiz's hot seat just got hotter. Maybe if he stuck with a somewhat normal line up his team would build momentum over a long championship season....or maybe not. Manchester United is still favorite, mainly because they will host Arsenal and Liverpool in those rematches. I also think ManU has too much depth. Arsenal lost valuable points when they drew with Newcastle and lost at Middlesbrough, those 4 points will come back to haunt them...of course Wenger could go out and make a big splash in the January transfer window (Benzema? Nasri? Anelka?).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Capello is the FA's man....

No surprise, at least once Mourinho took himself out of the running, that the English FA picked Fabio Capello to take over the reigns of the England National Football team. It was clear this marriage was in the works since the Italian was openly lobbying for the role, while the FA's first choice - The Special One - was playing coy, really using the heat to position himself for a potential big club this summer.

The FA has at least hired a manager with a good track record, albeit one that has limited knowledge of the England game and players. However Capello has managed some of the world's largest clubs - AC Milan, Real Madrid (twice), Roma and Juventus - and has won titles at each of his stops. He has a reputation of imposing his style and will to a team and is not afraid to challenge star players - see his benching of Beckham at Real Madrid...granted Becks found his way back into the side and was integral to their winning the title. I think this is where his character will be tested. I would argue that the England national team has the most egos of any national team, primarily due to their playing in the Premiership and having a sense of entitlement - see players such as Terry, Cashly Cole, Rooney, Lampard, et al. An example of this, and something Manu Petit called out in the English media, Cashley Cole and Terry did not play in the crucial England v Croatia game, a game that was for the survival of England for the Euros...yet three days later they are fit for a Chelsea game....makes you wonder if wearing the three lions means anything to some of these lads....oh and Terry is the England captain, way to lead from the front John. Capello will have to determine how he moves on, who he calls from the youth ranks, who he builds England around, and what system he will well as how he will communicate all this to his players since his English is not so good.

Here are the main issues I think Capello will have to address to find any modicum of success:

  • Who do you build around? It is clear that the experiment of having both Lampard and Gerrard in your midfield does not work. Gerrard being forced to play holding midfield does not make sense, and neither player seems to know what to do next to the other, they are too similar. Does Capello stick with one of these stars or look else where? Maybe a David Bentley who is starting to come into his own this season. Or does Capello look to build up front, but around whom? Rooney is too often injured and to much of a hot head to build around, I fear that we might have seen the best of Rooney at the 2004 Euros in Portugal. Michael he still an active player? I feel like he has become too fragile and also living a bit off his magical 1998 wonder goal against Argentina. So who to build on up front - Crouch...please. Heskey....granted had a few good games in emergency call up for England, but no. Walcott, maybe but I am still not convinced he can bring the goods. Okay what about defensively? This is where Capello may look to put his stamp on the team, he is an Italian master at defensive football. First Capello must determine if and where he can find a reliable defensive midfielder to protect the back four....Hargreaves....well maybe if he were ever healthy. Otherwise he needs to find someone to hold that role. But I think that Capello will find a way to develop Micah Richards, either start slotting him in the middle of the defense...or maybe as that holding/defensive midfielder. And in goal...well that is a mess....not sure what to do there, the fact that David James remains an option is all you need to know.
  • What about Becks? The former England Manager seemed to have a strange love/hate relationship with the golden boy of England. Even flying half way around the world to watch Becks play in scrimmages....maybe McLaren was more interested in leveraging the pound and doing some shopping in the US. It will be interested to see if Capello still sees value in Becks. During their time together at Real it was clear the Italian was reluctant to play Becks. Since Beckham's game has become very one dimensional - hit crosses with his right foot...and that is about it - do you need to play him at his right midfield spot? There maybe the outcry to get Becks to his 100th cap, but will Capello want to waste what few friendlies he has to have a "coronation" of Beckham?
  • The future of English Football - I am not one that thinks the English national team is a victim of their domestic league's success (the Italian league was the first to be overrun by foreigners yet the Azzurri have made and won major tournament finals). However I do think England is behind other nations in youth development from a national level. The fact that resources were diverted from building the national development center at Burton to complete the White Elephant that is Wembley (why do you need such a structure when you already have two world class stadiums in London - Emirates and Stanford Bridge and have other venues through out england??? oh and you are going to be building a huge Olympic stadium as Capello and England will need to determine how to get the necessary resources and staff at a youth development center, otherwise England will fall behind other nations such as France who have made Clairefontaine the center of excellence for finding, grooming, developing and creating tomorrow's national footballer.
Capello is getting into a difficult position. England have not won, let alone made a major tournament final since 1966....1966!!!! However he has been in high pressure positions before, and maybe his lack of English will make him immune to the slings and arrows of the English press. Not qualifying for the Euros may give him the impetus needed to clear house and put in place the system he wants. He is not one to shy away from squashing egos or sticking with what he thinks is right....two traits that will be heavily tested. If he can pass this test he might have some success, it is not as if the cupboard is bare. At the very least he should prove to be a better dresser than his predecessor.....

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Euro 2008 draw - France in the group of Death!

The European Cup draw is out and France did not get any favors granted...drawing the "group of death" with Italy, Holland and Romania! France gets to face Italy once again in competitive setting after having lost to them in the penalty shoot out in the World Cup and then twice during the Euro qualifiers. The Euro is always harder than the World Cup, and France has drawn the hardest of the lot! Here are the groups and my rants about each....I will save the France group for last:

Group A:
Czech Republic

On the surface a group that favors the Czechs and the Portuguese going through. But I think that Turkey might sneak in. I cannot see the Swiss putting up too much resistance even thought they will be playing at home. They will open with the Czechs in Basel, they may have a chance to catch the Czechs off guard, lets face it, the Czechs have not always had the best run at major tournaments even with buckets of talent, but that may be the best chance for a win. The key will be match day 2 when the two group heavy weights - the Czechs and Portugal face off, while the Swiss play the Turks (remember the home - away barrage match for the last world cup that ended with the Turks trying to WWE the Swiss in Istanbul?). I can envisage the Czechs and Portuguese drawing and the winner of the Czech v Turkey game being the second team through with Portugal.

Through to next round - Portugal and Czech Republic

Group B:

This would be a no brainer - Germany and Croatia through....and it is.....Germany will have to open with rival Poland, but should not have a problem with the Eastern European nation. Croatia, the "Brazil of Europe," will show that their qualifiers were no fluke. Austria is the weakest nation, not just in the group but in the entire tournament. I would not be surprised if they did not register a single point in 4 games. I think Croatia will win their battle with Germany during their head to head in day 2 with, Germany defeating Austria on the last day to secure their place in the 1/4 finals.

Through to next round - Croatia and Germany

Group D:

Yes I am out of order with the France group last, so here is Group D. This is an intriguing group, you have perennial underachievers Spain and Sweden, you have the defending champ Greece who overachieved last Euro and surprise team Russia, who was fortunate to get in after England's slip ups. Spain and Sweden faced off in qualifier with Spain dominating the last meeting. Spain has the most talent of any team in this Euro, but they also have the albatross of being underachievers. Could this be their year? Spain will start off against Russia and should find themselves with the full 3 points. Greece and Sweden face off in game 1, I think the Greeks are for real and Sweden disappoint too often. Game day 2 will find Sweden against Spain, something tells me that Spain will find a way to win as will Greece in their match up again Russia, all this making the final day moot.

Through to next round - Spain and Greece

Group C:


Ahhh, Les bleus got no gifts today....I guess that is their just desserts for playing like garbage this Euro and past World Cup qualifiers. So we have our "group of death" with the defending World Cup Champs, World Cup Finalists and perennial footballing power find themselves, and the 4th team bested said Holland during their qualifiers! The only thing that France have in their favor is they open with the weakest team - Romania. France must open with the full 3 points if they have any hope. France 2 - Romania 0

Meanwhile Italy and Holland will face off day one. Holland has been having some serious issues scoring goals, dating back to the Germany World Cup, they have oodles of talent but for some reason cannot find the back to the net. Starting off with Italy will not solve these ills. Italy is playing well and should find a 1-0 victory at the end of this match up. Day 2 finds France facing Oranje while Italy take on Romania. France should be able to do just enough to find a point against Holland, I think both teams will be cautious in their approach, with Holland looking for the full 3 point more than Les Bleus, but France and Holland draw 1-1. Italy stymies Mutu and the Romanians finds themselves with a 2-0 victory. The final day will find Italy already through and France only needing a point...meaning a boring 0-0 draw between the two neighbors. Romania and Holland will battle for pride with Holland needing a victory to at least have a chance: Holland 2 - Romania 2.

Through to next round - Italy and France

The 1/4 finals would be the following:

Portugal v Germany - Portugal through too much talent in Ronaldo for Germany
Czech v Croatia - Croatia, they appear to be the best "team" in the tournament
Italy v Greece - Battle of defending Euro and WC champs, the WC champs emerge
France v Spain - Rematch of WC 1/4 finals, I think same result, France through

1/2 finals:

Portugal v Croatia - Both teams are "Brazilian" but the one run by a Brazilian is better, Portugal
Italy v France - Oh brother another one of these...France is aching for revenge, Italy to prove the shoot was no fluke....France find a way.


France v Portugal....Portugal have too much attacking talent for an old France defense. Portugal wins, Domenech manages two finals and looses both....

The kick off us a long time away, much can change in that time including my opinion! But it should be a great tournament.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The "Special One" heading England???

So the rumors and stories are increasing in volume about Jose Mourinho "flirting" with the English FA to come make him an offer he cannot refuse to take over the Three Lions.

I might have to adjust my odds on him to 3-1! It does make sense, on the World Soccer Daily podcast they made a great point that Mourinho has all the tools to succeed as English head coach - arrogance, good relationship with British press, knows the British players, and insatiable desire to win and cover himself in glory. I will have to agree with Steven Cohen on all those points (if you want to hear a great imitation of what Mourinho would sound like in his press conference announcing his taking over the team, listen to the podcast....absolutely hysterical). What I think is even more likely to happen with Mourinho is the FA will offer him pots of money, realizing that they will instantly give themselves and the squad credibility. The Special One will immediately command the respect of the locker room, especially with players like Lampard and Terry, who some have argued are not focused enough when the put on the three lions. Mourinho could be the one to get these players to give it their all. I also think Jose would have absolutely no problem telling either Lampard or Gerrard they would sit on the bench, nor would he bother with visiting Beckham in LA, and he knows how to handle the English press. However, as I stated in the past, what Mourinho cannot do, were he to manage England would be to draft his Portugese players, or go out and buy Essien to play holding midfielder....

As those of you who read my blog know I am always wary when there is a lot of "smoke" cause usually there is a fire. The noise that is building around Mourinho is serious. I think Jose's ego would let him find himself on the sideline for England next March when they face Les Bleus, seeing himself as the one man that can rescue the English. Additionally, I think Jose is very motivated by the all might dollar, in this case pound (the dollar cannot really be called all mighty right now). The English FA has the money and resources to make a very attractive offer to him, and they should over pay after having made monumental mistakes with prior managers. However, I also think Mourinho is hungry to show Chelsea that they made a mistake and that he wants to take another big club and win more hardware. The England job might not fulfill his massive ego's insatiable appetite: he would get fewer chances during the season to stick it to rival managers, hog the spot lite, entertain us with his side line antics, and spew drivel during press conferences...

Bottom line, if England make a ridiculous offer (maybe 10m pounds, twice what he made at Chelsea, as well as clauses about termination, freedom of selection, total control of youth system, and all other facets of the game), I am not sure he can turn it down. But I think that if England drag their feet, he might just see this as an opportunity to "motivate" other potential suitors to make him an offer or lose him. I do not see him as England manager (although if he were to become the manager I would also not be is that for waffling), I think he will wait out other "big" clubs (and there are plenty of them, Liverpool where Benetiz is inexplicably crying poor after he splashed a lot of cash last summer, Barca, AC name a few), and I truly believe that if and when he gets into national management he will want to do so for his native Portugal.

But this all makes for great drama!

Friday, November 23, 2007

McLaren surprise

Little surprise that Steve McLaren is out as England manager, after a terrible Euro qualifying campaign that saw the Three Lions crash out for next years Euros (this loss also saw them drop to a second seed for the 2010 group qualifications for the World Cup) Of course all the punters are lining up to bet on who will take over for England, names ranging from Martin ONeill to the Special One to Alan Shearer are being bandied about. So here is my take on candidates:

Wenger - 50,000 to 1. Has always made it clear that he rather manage at the club level where he can spend more time with his players. Plus last time I checked Spanish, Ivorian, Dutch and French players can still not suit up for England. The French federation sniffed around when the post was open but backed down when Wenger made his club preferences known

Mourinho - 20 to 1. I know the Special One has taken himself out of the running, but what happens if England get a relative easy qualifying group and the FA offers him oodles of money. He knows the English game and has a large enough ego to take on the challenge, seeing himself saving England much as he views himself having res erected Chelsea....only problem is he will not have Russian billions to buy defensive midfielders or strikers....

Benetiz - 500 to 1. The Spaniards name has come up the past day, but I highly doubt it. He has never given an inclinations of wanting to manage a national side, and if so, why he not wait until after the Euros when Aragones has already declared he will not return to manage Spain? At least with Spain, Benetiz may have enough talent to stick with his favorite rotation system.

O'Neill - 5 to 1. Passed over when the FA selected McLaren, think the FA is regretting that? Could the second time be the charm? Claims he has no interest and is dedicated to Villa, but if the FA comes to him with a fat contract could he really turn down a chance to manage England...granted Villa might have a better chance qualifying for the WC at this point....

Capello - 3 to 1. Making a case for himself in the press. The former Real Madrid man is not one to shy away from a challenge and has taken on some important club sides. He may be just the man since he is not afraid to ruffle feathers and can instill some stability to an England team especially defensively. Might not win "pretty" but gets results.

Lippi - 12 to 1. Another Italian with solid pedigree, he is currently free and demonstrated with Italy can take a team, full of uncertainty and manage them to a title.

Big Sam - 40 to 1. I might have given him better odds had Allardyce still been at Bolton, but his move to a"bigger" club in Newcastle and his immediate lack of success make it more difficult to see him appealing to the FA.

Redknapp - 12 to 1. Always a master at getting the most out mid tier talent (so maybe perfect for the job!) But as Sky sports pointed out he is a master at finding inexpensive pieces in the transfer market.....not a skill needed at the international level.

Klinsmann - 4 to 1. Now that would be an interesting choice... a German at the head of the English team. Churchill would roll over in his grave. It is clear that Klinsmann may still be interested in managing, see his flirtation with the US job as well as LA Galaxy. The appeal of taking over another major national power may have some appeal to him, but I think in the end the controversy it would stir in his native nation would be too much, especially after all the good will he won from his surprise 3rd place finish.

Scolari - 200 to 1. Big Phil was heavily courted before the FA settled on McLaren, could they try again? Yes. But I think it will bear the same results. After successfully qualifying for the Euros, Big Phil should not be going anywhere anytime soon.

Hiddink - 200 to 1. See Big Phil.

Shearer - 3 to 1. The former England Captain and striker has made it clear he would be interested. He might be a good choice, for no other reason than the FA would get some good will from the fans and that might buy Shearer time, which for the England manager is the biggest luxury of all. Shearer is a former player, and has played with some of the existing team. He has always been in English football so knows the league, the press, the pressures and the system. Granted he has no management experience, but neither did Klinsmann with Germany or Bilic with Croatia...and lets face it the prior England managers had managerial "resumes" and that got them no where.

The final verdict and it is early, but I think the FA should lean towards Shearer or the like. They do not need a manager that does not know the English game, something mangers like Capello would have to ramp up on. Having a former captain and player would give them instant buzz, which they badly need. And Shearer would have the respect of the players, so when he tells Lampard to sit down for Gerrard he would be listened to. Of course Shearer does not have the managerial or tactical experience, but would have to surround himself with assistants that do...I think in a bad situation this may be the best route.

Of course I am sure the FA will put more names into this hat.....let the soap opera continue.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Pots are set!

According to BBC sports the "pots" are set for the Euro draw. Meaning the teams have been placed in "seeded" pots numbering 1 - 4, each contain 4 teams. The draw will have one team from each pot selected to make the 4 team groups. Some surprises...and potential for some monster groups -

The Pots:

Seedings for the draw for the 2008 European Championship in Austria and Switzerland:

Pot One:

Pot Two:
Czech Republic
Pot Three:
Pot Four:

The big surprise, well not that big, is France in the Pot Four. Based on their last two qualification campaigns they get dumped to the back of the bus and given a 4th seed! Granted, had Switerzland and Austria not been co hosting and you had a traditional 1 nation host, France would have most likely been a 3 seed...but still this could prove very interesting. Obviously the strongest from Pot 1 is Holland, the title defenders will be a handful but I think the two hosts will be weak opposition Austria more than the Swiss, but not by much.

Pot 2 is where the metal is - the weakest team are the Swedes, with the defending world cup champs being the strongest team. But based on their campaign no one will want to meet Croatia and the Czechs are always a solid, battle tested team.

Pot 3 is very interesting, with a football powerhouse - Germany, who I think will be out to prove that their 3rd place finish at the World Cup was no fluke. Portugal struggled at times, but have so much talent they are a team to fear. Romania is the clear weak team but had a strong qualifier, besting the Dutch to finish top of their group, drawing and beating the Oranje head to head. And finally the enigma that is Spain, who has an absurd amount of talent but seems to melt when it comes to these big tournaments.

Pot 4 has two teams happy to be there, the World Cup finalist and a tough team in Turkey. Russia is just happy to be present after almost giving away qualification, and being glad Steve Mclaren is in charge or England and not some more quality manager. Poland is a surprise having won their group. Turkey is never a team you want to face, they are just as likely to beat you as they are to beat you up....well maybe only when they play the Swiss. And finally Les Bleus...France qualified from what was evident from the get go a difficult group, but they also made it more difficult for themselves. But they are clearly the most difficult team in this pool, one every team will want to avoid as their fourth seed.

Here are some matches up we would love to see -

  • Turkey in the Swiss group - after the home and away barrage match for the World Cup that ended in groin kicks, purse swinging, tunnel bust ups and out right stupidity it would be a great rematch
  • France and Germany - we almost had them go head to head in the WC finals...while my heart may not be able to withstand such a match up it has been a while since these two nations have met in a meaningful setting
  • Greece and Portugal - 3 years ago the surprise Greeks beat the Portuguese TWICE including the finals to earn the silverware, revenge would be oh so sweet for Ronaldo and friends.....
  • Holland and Germany - any student or fan of football need not ask why this would be a treat to watch....
  • A group of - Holland, Italy, Germany, and France..... again I may not be able to handle it, actually I know I would not be able to, but every game would be on razor's edge. No love lost amongst any of these nations.
  • Greece and Turkey - they faced one another in qualifiers with the Greece ending on top, even though they got trounced 4-1 in the first match up versus Turkey. Absolutely no love lost between these two bitter rivals...imagine what it would be like in a group stage at the Euros...or in knock out rounds?
Of course I am a football nerd so I did my own mock draw and here is what I got as groups -

Group 1

Ohhh Germany v Russia....wonder if anyone will bring up Stalingrad or the Battle of Kursk.

Germany and Sweden through

Group 2

Phew, France avoids the group of death, see group 4, but barely. They also get the weakest #1 seed. Hopefully this "lucky" draw is foreshadowing of things to come.

France and Croatia through

Group 3

Could be a mini group of death, lots of solid teams. And we get the Greece v Turkey match up

Greece and Italy through

Group 4

In my draw it came down to either Poland or France in this group....if France had fallen in....woooahhh scary group. As is already not easy.

Holland and Spain through

There is a long long long way to go, but the fun is only beginning! Here is hoping France gets drawn with Austria and not Holland!

Allez les BLEUS

France draws with Ukraine ... much to do about nothing .... oh and England fall 13 minutes short

How anticlimactic for Les Bleus, they travel to Kiev to face the Ukraine in the final match of their Euro qualifying campaign and as much as Domenech wanted this to be a "serious"match it was clear the French were going through the motions.

Overall the Ukrainians looked the hungrier side, with the Liverpool man Voronin looking very dangerous every time he came within striking distance of the ball. Even the Chelsea benchwarmer Sheva was dangerous, both over free kicks and making wide runs. It did not help that the French defense appeared utterly bored and disinterested in making any tackles. The Ukrainians justly got the opening goal on a screamer by Voronin that gave Frey, getting his first French cap. This finally appeared to wake up the French and more importantly the midfield and attackers who started to string together some good combinations. Henry made a wonderful turn to free himself and strike home from 18 with a beautiful left footed shot. A few minutes later Sidney Govou, with a simple yet deadly 1-2 with Lyon teammate Benezema found himself alone versus the keeper and calmly left footed his shot into the goal. At this point it was clear which team was the class on the pitch, the French were passing the ball around the park moving with ease around the Ukrainian defenders and truly controlling the midfield. But this momentum came to an abrupt end at the start of the second half.

Moments after the opening whistle Sheva attempted a cheeky lobbed header that Frey butchered into his goal. It appeared that Frey was caught between trying to make a spectacular one handed catch or deflect the shot into a corner kick...although watching the replay I will say that the shot was so "soft" that Frey might have felt the ball did not have enough power for him to simply guide it over the cross bar. He might have needed to either catch or literally throw the ball out of the corner, tougher than it may at first appear. This would turn out to be the last action of the match, although the Ukrainians came close on a few more occasions to go up 3-2. Which leads me to my main criticism of this team - lack of concentration, especially on defense.

Watching players of the likes of Thuram, granted not the youngest but with TONS of experience, making school yard errors was frustrating. The Euros are 6 months away...actually 198 days 16 hours as of this writing, so there is some time to work things out, but the bulk of the team is what we have been seeing over the past year of qualifiers. France will need to figure out what they are doing defensively and do so quickly. Sagnol will be back, so the right side should be all set, Abidal is set on the left (he did have a spectacular long ball that Henry almost one timed for a great goal in the first half), Gallas in the middle with Thuram....but Lilian will be 6 months older. While he has a world of experience, it is clear his legs are not what they were 4 years ago, I can never criticize what he has done for Les Bleus....his only two goals, both coming in one game - against Croatia in the '98 semi finals - give him a life time "get out of jail free" card from me. He also showed me real heart and determination in the World Cup where I think he was the man of the match against Portugal in the semi finals. What I fear is that we are seeing a Desailly situation from Euro 2004 all over again, a great warrior who went one battle too far. Now I do not think that will be the case, but Thuram will have to manage his next 6 months at the club level to ensure he is still effective in Austria/Switzerland next year.

My other concern is at holding midfield. With Makelele and Vieira getting on with age, I think they will need to do the same. I am not worried about keke, his engine never seems to slow down. And I think that he is extra motivated, this will be his last major international tournament and he missed on the glories of France in 98 and 2000 so will want to do what ever he can to ensure he goes out on top. From a pure skill level I am not worried about Vieira, I am not a pundit who thinks he is a shell of his old self. I think the main issue with Big Pat is his ability to stay healthy, when he is fit, he remains a box to box midfielder of the highest quality....when he is fit. I think it is up to Domenech to figure out who he has for cover - Toulalan, Diarra, Diaby, Mavouba, Flamini....

I am not concerned for offensive midfielders or strikers, the big question will be what kind of system will Domenech prefer? Two strikers with a pairing of Anelka - Henry, Henry - Benzema, Anelka - Benzema? I would assume the strikers on the bench will start with Saha and the third man out from the above pairings, but then it becomes interesting. With Cisse's form taking a serious dip, can you really blame him after two horrific broken legs? And with Trezegol apparently having called Domenech's baby ugly and therefore having banned to "non selectable" land, it will be interesting who Domenech looks to, I guess Ben Arfa would be the choice but I see him more as a wide midfielder. As for midfield, you will have some good competition to see who plays with Ribery and Malouda most likely the offensive options, but Nasri and Rothen could make good cases for being selected.

Next stop, Dec 2nd were we will learn the fate of Les Bleus, which group will they find themselves in....what will be interesting is that the 4 teams in the first "hat" may be the weakest in a major tournament. Mainly due to the two host nations...while Greece is the title holder they may be seen as a weak #1 seed but they did look very dangerous during qualifiers so someone to avoid. I think the 4th #1 seed will be the Czechs. With Italy, German, Holland most likely in the 2nd hat, France or Spain may fall into the third hat....which would make for an interesting "group of death." Regardless, that is what makes the Euros so good is the fact the tournament starts from day 1, there are no easy games, unlike the World Cup...where France had the ability to snack on Togo to go through (although barely).

England FALL!!!
The other huge news of the day is the inability for Steve McLaren to qualify the three lions for the tournament. After having been granted a life line this past weekend with Russia losing in the final minutes to Israel. This meant that all England had to do was hold Croatia, at Wembley to ensure they pass to the Euros next year.

Unfortunately I did not get the Pay Per View so my commentary is from what I was able to gather from web reports....but it sounded like a cracker of a game. With Croatia jumping out to a 2-0 lead early in the game when Scott Carson, making his first meaningful senior start in goal!, made a gaff of the first goal and was beaten cleanly on the second. Questionable decision to insert the young keeper as the #1 for the last qualifier...granted Robinson was not and is not lighting the world on fire with his play either.

The other strange decision was not to have two natural strikers, I realize McLaren was a bit hamstrung in that department, but having a Bent play up front with Crouch might have been what it took to keep the Croatian team a bit more back on its heals, instead England went into half time down 2-0....more amazing was their ability to pull the game back to 2-2! And of course, then they let everyone in Wembley down by allowing a goal with 13 minutes to go in the game.....the horror! I feel the pain of the English fans, remembering that France only had to draw with either Bulgaria or Israel in 1993 to go to World Cup USA and in both cases they lost in the dying moments of the match......ugh the pains of qualifiers. Ironically that is the last time a major tournament had neither France nor England participate....this time France will go but not England.

However for my Newcastle drinking, bangers & mash eating friends, I do not think this is the worst thing that could happen to the Three Lions. The English team has been in disarray since they lost to Brazil in the 2002 world cup....yes they reached the 1/4 finals of both the Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, but in both cases they did so in very unconvincing fashion. I think that England need to completely rethink its system from bottom to top. And I do not want to hear about the Premiership being what is wrong due to all the foreign players in the league...last time I checked the Italian league was he first to become "international" and the Azzurri have won a some titles since 1966!

  • England needs to bring in a manager that will build his team, and stick to it, not someone who feels he has to play the likes of Lampard and Gerrard together just because they "star" for some of the biggest clubs in the world.
  • England needs to start developing some holding midfielders, at least not those that are repatriated from Canada and are always hurt.
  • England needs to figure out who will be their keeper.
  • England definitely needs to figure out where to get its goals when Rooney will find himself injured once again
  • England must determine if Owen is all done...managers fall in love with his goal in 1998 against Argentina....granted it made the hair on my neck stand on end.....but he has become a shadow of himself and has been struck too often by the injury bug
  • England must shore up its development and youth systems....I doubt managers like SAF or Wenger would be poaching Spanish, French and even Australian youth players if England had a better crop available.
These are all tall tasks the next national team manager will need to champion and push...with the brutality of the English press and the fanatically following of the English fans the English FA must bring in a manager of such stature that he can have the time and slack to work his plan. Someone like Scolari (although the luster of his star has been a bit tarnished after his Woody Hayes imitation), someone like Lippi, someone like...gasp the Special One? But the new England manager must have an iron clad 4 year contract, take England through 2010 World Cup and into 2012 Euros, through thick and thin. Otherwise I fear you will see more of the same...granted as a Frenchman gives me the warm and fuzzies, but for football as a whole it is more interesting when England is going well than when it is tripping over itself.

Ahhh and who said qualifiers were boring!

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Slow" MLS, Poor Scotland, Lucky England, and other thoughts from the weekend

On Sunday I found myself wanting for Footie on the tele, while the NFL has lost its appeal to me...even though I live in Boston I am not a fan of the Patriots so watching their march towards a coronation does not appeal to me and with all the important internationals having been played in Saturday there was little footie to be had on tv...except for the MLS finals. So I decided to give it a shot, plus it was in HD....and of course, I was a little disappointed. The "Orange" of Houston defeated the New England Revolution for the second straight year. While the game, could have and should have been exciting - ending in dramatic 2-1 loss for the Revs - it was rather pedestrian footie.

Here is how I look at it, these are suppose to be the 2 best teams in the MLS...yet they both looked extremely ordinary. I was expected some good passing, interplay, runs off the play, solid team defending and team attacking. What I got was fumbling runs, poor passes, terrible in point - with the game 1-1 I was seeing Rev players receiving the ball on the Houston 18 yard box, calmly control the pass, make and EAT a sandwich, think about whether to turn or pass off, and then finally (after much though) turn to goal....okay maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration....but I feel even when I watch lower level teams playing in FA cup games or even teams in France's Ligue 2 you NEVER see anyone have that much time any where on the pitch let alone in the scoring zone. The commentators appeared to state the players were fatigued...please...these are professional athletes, you are supposedly playing in your league's most prestigious cup final, you do not let strikers camp out on your 18...and when they get the ball you do not give them time to make a decision!

My other observation was the two best players for each team - Rosario for Houston and Joseph for Houston - I could not see them "staring" for an Athletico Madrid, Portsmouth, Sampdoria, or PSG (well maybe not PSG)...that is to say mid tier European clubs. Rosario is decent, but he kind of reminds me of a very poor man's version of McBride. Not a ton of natural talent, not very fast, no booming shot, but gets the job done. And Joseph could be a decent holding midfielder, if he bulks up, but he does not have the size or mean streak needed (such as a Gattuso, Vieira or Keane). What this game really demonstrated was that the comments that come out of Alexi Lalas' pie hole are absolutely absurd....primarily the ones about the MLS being a "premier league" and that you could take MLS teams/players and drop them off into the Prem and they would not miss a beat. Lalas needs to shut his yapper and accept that the MLS is a nice league, but need not compare itself to anyone in Europe, I am not sure any MLS team could "shine" playing in the Argentinian domestic league or Brazilian....Not sure how this turned into an anti-Lalas blurb....but it made sense to me.

Some thoughts on the other bigger matches over the weekend.

Poor Scotland - Okay I say that "tongue firmly in cheek." With Italy winning in Scotland, both France and the Italians are in for the Euros next year without having to worry about the final games for both nations. But stepping away from my unabashed Frenchness for a second...I think Scotland were hard luck losers on Saturday. Italy did what they needed to, getting an early goal off a poor defensive shape from the Scotish a throw in three scotish defenders went to the ball leaving Toni the space to sneak in and poke in the opening goal. This took out the Hampden Park crowd, but to the Scots credit they battled back. Almost getting an equalizer only to see Pirlo clear the ball off his line after Buffon was beat. Scotland finally did get the magical goal after Buffon botched the handling of the ball right into the path of Ferguson who cooly tapped in to equalize the game with 25 minutes to go. Scotland had the 2-1 goal at their feet only to see McFadden steer the ball wide of a wide open Italian goal. And as is prone to happen, the Azzurri found a way to win the game in the dying moments. After a very questionable foul granted to Italy, not sure how the shoulder charge from the Italian was seen as a foul from the Scotish defender - mind you the Scotish player, Hutton, had control of the ball and was bringing it out of the touch line, only to have the Italian player plow him over and get the call....again not sure how that was a Scotish foul.

Scotland have a right to complain about the refs, but they were also given a gift (actually twice), Italy had a second goal called back due to an offside...which was not there. And Scotland's goal could have been called off side but was not...In the end it was hard luck for the Scots, they played well this qualifying season but dropped key points away to Ukraine and inexplicably away to Georgia. Had they come back from each of these with at least a draw they would never have been in this situation. It will be interesting to see how Scotland are seeded for the next World Cup qualifiers. However it is good to see "regular service" least if you are Italian or French!

Lucky England - The three lions were fortunate, and they did not even play this weekend! After watching Israel come back and defeat the Russians, the English are still very much alive for qualification after appeared DOA after the disaster in Moscow. The Russian team dominated in Israel but due to poor finishing and lax defending at the end of the match, gifted the Israelis a victory. Now all England have to do is draw at home against Croatia....with the former Yugoslavian nation already through I see a ho-hum "walk in the park" match, and a 0-0 or 1-1 draw at the end. I think the only way you might get an exciting match is if Croatia score early and decide to defend the lead, forcing the 1-striker English team to attack. Otherwise, it will be a bore.

Some other random thoughts, it is good too see Spain qualify after early on it appeared they were in trouble. They have so much talent they need to be present, however it pains me to see Aragones still in power. He is a racist old man (remember the comments he made to Reyes about Henry) and does not deserve to be at the helm of the squad. Spain has too much talent not to do well in a tournament, but somehow I am certain he will underachieve next year.

Ruud Gullit to the LA Galaxy...hmmm not sure what this all about....I give him half a season before he wakes up and realizes he has more of a future taking on a second tier team in Holland.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ouf ouf ouf!!! Merci Azzurri!

Italy wins a dramatic 2-1 victory (as I had predicted) in Scotland...ensuring that both France and Italy will go to the Euros. Unfortunately I was not able to watch the match but did "watch" via multiple footie sites. Must regroup....before posting more.

And who says qualifiers are not interesting????

Friday, November 16, 2007

Euro qualifiers - crunch time

This weekend is a huge Euro qualification weekend, and non more so than for the British Isles. While England will not be playing, they will be fixed on the match in Israel between Russia and Israel. Further north Scotland will be battling for their qualification lives against the reigning World Cup champs. So what will happen -

  • Russia v Israel: When the schedules first came out this seemed like a ho hum type of game, one that no one outside the respected countries would care about. However after stumbling on the artificial turf in Moscow, England is collectively rooting for Israel to at least steal a point against the Russian bear. After a week of barbs between Guus Hiddink and his English counterpart, this game has taken on a great degree of gamesmanship...between two coaches that are not even facing one another! The other story line is the absence of Yossi Benayoun. The Liverpool based player is out, and has a terrific international record - 13 goals in 53 matches. But I do not think this will make a huge difference. Russia and Israel drew 1-1 in the first meeting...and playing in Israel is not an easy affair, England left with a 0-0 draw much like France did in the last WC qualifiers where they had to eek out a 1-1 draw. I think Israel will give England a glimmer of hope and hold Russia 0-0.
  • Scotland v Italy: The other big match for the UK finds the surprising Scots with a chance to go to the Euros. The biggest shock is not that Scotland has a chance against Italy, but that they are not in a better position. After a shock defeat of Les Bleus in Paris and a well deserved win over Ukraine at home, they inexplicably lost in Georgia against a youth side! Italy come into the game with their domestic league under a shroud of violence and disgrace after a Lazio fan was killed prior to a domestic game. Much is being made of the Azzurri's state of mind. Additionally they will be playing in the white hot atmosphere of Hampden Park, where the Scottish fans will be "slightly" fired up for arguably the most important game for Scotland in years. However the Italians are World Champs for a reason, they know how to get results when they count. It is not always "pretty" but it is effective. I could see this game ending in a draw or a 1-0 victory for Italy...however I think Italy will win an exciting match 2-1. Italy will score early only to see Scotland fight back for an equalizer....but in the end the Azzurri will find a way to score a winner and ensure their place in the Euros. Wishful thinking coming from a Frenchman (if Italy wins France is also in regardless of what they do in Ukraine)....maybe, but I also recognize that Italy know how to get the results they need when they need them. This time will be no different.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Les Bleus - ready for the last push to Austria/Switzerland

I am remiss that I did not comment sooner on the French selections for the upcoming final Euro qualifiers. Once again Domenech surprises us.....well maybe not surprise but more demonstrates his stubbornness.

First here is the list -

Keepers - Frey, Landreau, Ramé
Defenders – Abidal, Clerc, Evra, Gallas, Squillaci, Thuram, Sagna
Midfielders – A.Diarra, L.Diarra, Flamini, Makelele, Nasri, Rothen, Toulalan, Malouda, Ribéry
Strikers – Anelka, Ben Arfa, Benzema, Govou, Henry

Anyone who has watched Domenech select will not be too surprised with his selections and more importantly the names not on the list. Of course no Vieira, Coupet or Sagnol is due to these three players being injured or coming back from prolonged injury time. However, once again, no Trezeguet...what gives? Trezegol is in form with Juventus, finding the back of the net 10 times already this season. It is clear that Domenech has no more use for one of France's greatest goal scorers, least we forget that he sits 3rd on the list behind Henry and Platini. Not sure what Domenech is thinking or what his strategy is with regards to selections. More on this later.

Other points of note - the recall of Ben Arfa. Initially when he was called up for injured players last round it was rumored that Domenech did so to avoid Ben Arfa being tempted to play for his parent's native Morocco. However the young Lyonnaise player showed that he could bring an added dimension to the pitch, with pace and passing from the wing he could act as a late game offensive joker.

What is not a surprise the recall of Nasri and Benzema. Benzema has demonstrated he is the future great striker for Les Bleus, and showed that his partnership with Henry could be something very interesting to watch for next year in the Euros. Nasri has been on the side line for a while, however it is clear that his vision and ability to take on defenders is something France needs as it looks to develop the next number "10".... I do not understand the facisination with Clerc and Squillaci, over players such as Clichy and Mexes. Clerc is not even a undisputed starter for Lyon, and while Squillaci is having a good season, Mexes has done nothing to not get the call up. I do not think that Domenech is looking to retain Clerc as cover at right back for Sagna...since it is clear that Domenech has used Diarra at right back, even when he has healthy backs available. So not sure on why selecting him when he is not even his club's #1 right back.

The other "binky" for Domenech is Gouvou...I realize he had a fantastic brace against the Italians, but he is also not one that is lighting up the domestic season. He can play on the wing, but so do Malouda, Ribery, Rothen and Ben Arfa...

Which leads me once again to questioning Domenech in his thinking and selection process...Domenech publicly stated that Trezeguet was not selected on a regular basis last season due to his playing in Serie B. Even thought he was still finding the back of the net on a regular basis. Yet he will insist on selecting a player that is not playing regularly for his club? How does that make any sense? I realize that the results justify some of Domenech's moves, but I think that the team succeeds despite some of his selections and decisions. Domenech has demonstrated a singular stubbornness and focus that have served him far. However, the qualification is not wrapped up yet. And having to travel to Ukraine in a week is no small task. Assuming it will be typical Ukrainian weather - cold with a frozen pitch - France might need to look to win or draw "ugly." Which means having players that are a "fox in the box" players that can score on long crosses, rebounds, loose balls, or ugly rebounds. I realize that Benzema can do so...but so can Trezeguet. I think that the selector has decided that he wants strikers that can all take on defenders and are all adept at running at defenses. But it might have been nice to have a player on your bench that can come in and score the "ugly" goal you may need to leave Kiev with the result you need.

Domenech has stuck to his guns, hopefully the results will bear fruit and France will be present next summer at the Euros. But I still question his thought process, hopefully the results will prove Domenech right.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A few things I learned after this weekend

After the "game of the century" not the one in Indy the one at the Emirates between Manchester United and Arsenal, okay maybe that is an exaggeration but proved to be an exciting game yet a bit anti-climatic, ending in a 2-2 draw.

What I learned from this match up -

  • Arsenal have done it their way, developing young talent which is showing itself this season. Cesc has become one of the best players in the Prem if not the world, he has always been a great distributor of the ball from his deep midfield slot, but this season he has added a scorers touch that Arsenal dearly need from the midfield if they are to compete. In addition, they have a good balance with some veterans, such as Gallas, but their main issue that will hold them back are two fold - still need a big name striker and need reliable hands in net!
  • Manchester United remains the cream of the Prem. When you can bring on a Saha late in the game is scary with regards to the depth available to the squad. I still think that Manchester United is too deep and will eventually out last the other contenders.
What I learned from the weekend as a whole:
  • This is a three horse race - Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea are the only teams that will contend for the title. Even with Chelsea losing the "special one" they still have too much talent not to contend. They are showing, with the new offensive football, that they can pile on the goals and wins.
  • Liverpool.....the recent 8-0 thrashing of Beskitas today aside, the Reds are not built for the Prem, at least Benetiz does not seem to be able to manage the wealth of talent available to him for the Prem. After watching Arsenal and Manchester United drawing, Liverpool had the opportunity to grab 3 points but rather drew versus Blackburn...not the results of a team that has title aspirations.
The race is still in its early stages, a lot can change, especially after the transfer window. However, it is clear that as "great" the Prem is, it really is a league of haves and have nots. If your team is not from London, Liverpool or Manchester you stand little chance to challenge.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Martin Jol out....

No stunner here, Martin Jol steps down from the Northern London club. After a disastrous start to the season the writing on the wall was there that the dutchman would not last. However does he deserve all the blame? I would say no. I think the majority of the blame should fall on the slim shoulders of Robinson.

Robinson has been nothing short of a disaster this season for both club and country. While I have never been convinced that he is a world class keeper, this season he has demonstrated that he might not be a #1 in the Prem. For whatever reason this season Robinson has decided that parrying shots into the middle of the 5 yard box is a new tactic. Against Liverpool for Tottenham and recently against Russia for England, Robinson decided to parry shots that were at his body right into the 5 yard box where the striker following the ball had a simple tap in. In both cases this cost Robinson's teams important points.

Too bad for Martin Jol that his transfer spending did not land him a pair of more reliable hands, cause that might have kept him in his job.

Champions League - what is happening to Liverpool

The Reds inexplicably lost to Beskitas last night in the Champions League, granted the game was in Istanbul, not the easiest place to play. But Benetiz's reds are in real danger of not qualifying for the knock out stage of the Champions League. After three games Liverpool sit last on 1 point, a fortunate draw away to Porto. Now Liverpool have the advantage of facing only one road match the rest of the way - away to Marseilles. Liverpool will have to make the most of their two matches in Anfield, otherwise Benetiz's season will be over....since no one really believes they will challenge for the Prem title.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ooooof - France passes and a new all time goal scorer

Oooof oooof oooooffff....Les Bleus find a way to crack the Lithuanian defense with two Henry goals late in the Euro qualifier. This game took on even greater importance after it was learned that Georgia had defeated the Scots 2-0 earlier throwing the group into increased confusion. First let us look at the France game.

I think the beauty of World Cup and Euro qualifiers is that games that you would otherwise not care about take on a huge importance....such as this one. France came out with some urgency, hitting the post twice in the first 10 minutes and were not unlucky in not securing a 1-0 lead early on. But as the first half pressed on it was apparent that Lithuania was not intimidated and were ready to allow the French to lay seige to their goal and defend, looking for the counter to try and steal a goal....which they almost did. After the early barrage of French pressure Lithuania found itself sitting on a golden opportunity in their only foray into French territory when in the 18th minute, Ksanavicius took one two French defenders, turned, somehow got free and curled a dangerous left footed shot that beat Landreau only to smack against the right goal post. The rebound was even more dangerous as it fell into the path of an on rush Lithuanian who inexplicably launched his shot high and wide when he had the entire goal to shoot at. This near fatal strike did not seem to phase Les Bleus as they continue to press on looking for the edge.

They appeared to make the break 12 minutes later when Malouda was second man in on a Ribery cross, only to have brave defending from the Lithuania defender deny him a goal. As well as a lively run from Benzema in the 37th minute only to have his shot skirt the right post.

The second half started much as had the first, with France pressing the Lithuania goal but only finding their finishing lacking. The French were unfortunate to not having 2 penalty kicks awarded after Ribery's kit was cleared pulled in the box and Henry was taken down after making the turn at the penalty spot. Domenech then inserted youngster Ben Afra, demonstrating the importance of winning the match was for Les Bleus. The young Lyon player had a chance to be a hero on a tricky pass from Ribery after he had beaten the keeper but not knowing what to do with a mid level ball Ben Afra tried to strike it home with his boot rather than attempting a diving header. It appeared that the Baltic nation may have once again found playing spoiler to a favorite, just as it had when it drew with the Italians earlier on in the campaign.

But the liberation would be found in the 79th minute when Titi would will his way to finding France a goal. At first it was questionable as to whether or not Ribery was in an off side position but a Lithuania defender clearly kept the play on side. With that goal, not only did Henry put France in a much better position to qualify but it pushed him ahead of French legend Platini to be the top scorer for the French national team with 42 goals. A few minutes later Henry latched on from a brilliant deep ball from Toulalan to increase his overall tally to 43 goals, making the score 2-0. A few minutes later France really should have added a third when Benzema found himself 1 on 1 with the keeper with a wealth of options....he could take it on himself or pass off to a wide open Henry to his right. Instead he tried to be cheeky and chip the keeper only to see a prone Lithuania keeper make a huge double save, one on Benzema and the second on a charging Malouda.

France would milk the rest of the match, with Lithuania conceding defeat. The game proved much more difficult than it should have, but shows what international football is about in modern times...even small nations can give the big teams major headaches. In the end France secured the essential, the full three points.

Some thoughts on the match -

The Good:

  • Benzema - while I remain a fan of Trezeguet and believe he has an important role on the French national team, it is evident that the young player from Lyon has some impressive skills and is a jewel of the future generation for Les Bleus. Granted, he was playing this week versus Faroe Islands and Lithuania, however he demonstrated an ability to take on defenders from the wing as well as from the top of the formation. He has an incredible acceleration and is not afraid to shoot. What he brings that is different than a Trezeguet is his ability to pick up the ball further up the park and carry it to the scoring zone. Manu Petit, commentating, made a good point that we should not get too caught up in the early irrational exuberance surrounding the youngster, but at 19 it appears that he might evolve into the next great French striker.
  • Toulalan - another player from Lyon....he had a solid first half but really picked up his game the second half. His energy and tackling allowed France to continually put the pressure on the team from the Baltics. He was the origin of the second goal but putting in a fantastic through ball from deep in the French camp.
  • Henry - I will admit that I have been at times critical of the talismatic Frenchman, but in scoring two goals today he not only emerged tops of the French all time scoring list but gave France an important 3 points in the race for the Euros. One could argue that it came against Lithuania but then again goals are goals, and these two might have put France one step closer to qualification.
The Bad
  • French defense - Granted they did not concede a goal, but the first half double miss by Lithuania should never have happened. The first action occurred when two French defenders had shut down the Lithuania striker but somehow allowed him to escape to get off a dangerous shot.
  • Domenech's selection - I guess the results speak for themselves, but I question insisting on putting Diarra at right back when his natural position is midfield. I understand why the Arsenal player has played that role at times for his club, mainly due to necessity. However with a player like Sagna on the bench why would he not be the #1 option? The corn rowed defender got a start against Faroe Islands, but not sure why he is not the #1 option with Sagnol out...
The Ugly
  • French finishing - Okay they scored the vital 2 goals and hit the post twice....but it should have been easier had they been able to finish. One major aspect is the lack of support from the midfielders in the attacking half. It appears at times that Les Bleus are efficient and clinical at getting the ball into the last 18, but then stand back and wait for the strikers to do the rest, rather than continuing to add support and putting pressure on the defense.
So what does this all mean? With Scotland inexplicably losing to Georgia, it all comes down to the Italy vs Scotland match. That match will be held prior to France traveling to Kiev. As it stands if Scotland lose to the Azurri, France are in regardless of their trip to Kiev. A Scotish victory or draw will mean France need a point from Keiv to go through....of course after what happened in World Cup '94 qualifying I am rooting for Italy to come out of Scotland with 3 points!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trezeguet - black listed?

After Saha had to withdraw from France's upcoming Euro qualifiers it would appear that the replacement striker would fall on the shoulders of Trezegol....who was already snubbed from the initial list. However, Domenech called upon the Lyon youngster Ben Arfa to fill the slot. A bit of a curious choice, since the young winger has not been lighting Ligue 1 on fire and he has not been called up for the senior squad prior. Granted he has a good track record with the youth French national teams, winning a European Championship at the U-17 level. One theory pushed by the article is that Domenech may look to get some playing time for the youngster in order to avoid having him to potentially be poached by Tunisia, where he has dual nationality.

However the trend that is disturbing is the manner in which Domenech is handling his Juventus striker. For the past two seasons Domenech has appeared to target Trezeguet as his whipping boy. He shifted his World Cup team structure forcing Trezeguet to the bench, which the results demonstrated might have been the right choice. After the World Cup and due to his missed penalty kick, many thought Trezegol would retire from the national team, however he did not. With Juventus toiling in Serie B, Domenech used this as a reason for not selecting Trezegol. Which made no sense when the Franco-Argentinian would from time to time, find himself in France's blue. Domenech then went one step worse by sticking Trezeguet on the "A side" during a friendly against Slovakia, basically putting him on the JV team. And then Domenech recalls Trezeguet for the Scotland qualifier. So the Trezeguet yo-yoing continues. Which is ridiculous for a player of his caliber, a player that is currently a leading scorer in Italy....last time I checked Henry and Saha are not leading their domestic leagues with goal tallies.

Domenech has demonstrated an uncanny ability to mismanage the personal relationship side of being a national team manager. Granted, so far he has saved his job because he has survived due to his results - although barely....losing to Scotland twice is not good. Domenech has 3 games to go. If he qualifies France and does well next year in the European Championship, anything short of a semi final will be a failure, then I will grudgingly accept his style as national manager. If he stumbles, I am sure he will be out in which case my criticisms may prove well warranted.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Spurs deeper into the abyss

After a brace from Keane this weekend it appeared that Martin Jol would not only save his neck but might also see his underachieving Tottenham side start to creep back to where they belong. However a famous victory at the Kop was snatched away by a last minute goal by Torres....on a play where Chimbonda should have done a bit better than allow the Spanish striker a free jump to the ball. However the malaise can be seen across the entire club. Paul Robinson is looking very shaky these days. It can be argued that the free kick he spilled for Veronin to tap in was not up to his apparent caliber of play. However why were no Tottenham defenders following the pony tailed striker after the initial strike? At times Tottenham looked sluggish and out of sync. They could have put this match away during the run of play but never seemed to get the proper rhythm. It just felt that the North London players were assuming that at some point Liverpool would find the equalizer and that it was just a matter of time....which turned out to be a self fulfilling prophecy.

So where does this leave the Spurs? I think Jol will find himself out of a job post international break. I think his team is going through the motions and not playing anywhere near the level expected of them. I realize that King is out, and certain pundits point to this as causing instability on the Spurs back line, but I do not accept that. They still have what is considered world class players and defenders, it is unacceptable to allow so many leads slip away in the late stages of matches. Since you cannot fire the entire team, the Dutchman will be the one facing the prospects of getting the pink slip. Who will replace him? Not Mourinho, although that would be a great story line. I think Tottenham will have to find a care take manager, one that can ensure the Spurs stay in the Prem next season....which I woul dnot have thought would be a problem pre-season. Or do the North Londoners make a splash and go after Fabio Capello? You know the spectacled Italian will make sure the Tottenham defense does not sprout any more late match leaks.

This saga does overshadow something that must make the Anfield faithful cringe, the fact Liverpool has had a successful run of draws and poor performances. They cannot even turn to Champions League for solace having somehow lost to Marseilles at home. Benetiz is once again finding himself defending his rotation system and it becomes more clear to me that the Spaniard is better suited for knock out football. Games where he can tailor his rotation to meet the teams he is facing. When it comes to the Premiership, the rotation does his side no good when they need to get a rhythm for the long run, sustain it, and not worry about who is on the opposite side of the pitch. The Benetiz over thinking will once again cost the Reds a legitimate shot at the Premiership title.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Allez Les Bleus!!!!

Not in footie but rugby, another historic victory of the French over the heavily favored All Blacks from New Zealand. France proved all the pundits wrong and won a famous 20 - 13 quarter final match in Cardiff. Reminds me of another famous French victory over the New Zealanders in 1999 at Twickenham.

This sets up a huge semi final match versus historic rival England at the Stade de France. Maybe this will inspire their counterparts who kick a round ball to end qualifiers strong. France need to make and win the finals, otherwise this historic victory will ring a bit hollow.

Allez les BLEUS!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

France announce the team for next Euro round

Domenech announced yesterday the players he will be retaining for the next two matches against Lithuania and the Faroe Islands. A few surprises, but overall the usual suspects:

La sélection :
Gardiens :
Sébastien Frey, Mickaël Landreau, Ulrich Ramé

Défenseurs :
Eric Abidal, Julien Escudé, Patrice Evra, William
Gallas, Philippe Mexès, Bakary Sagna, Lilian Thuram

Milieux de terrain :
Abou Diaby, Lassana Diarra, Mathieu Flamini, Claude Makelele, Jérôme Rothen, Jérémy Toulalan

Attaquants :
Nicolas Anelka, Karim Benzema, Sidney Govou, Thierry Henry, Florent Malouda, Franck Ribéry, Louis Saha

So here is my major beef, and I might sound like a broken record....but why is Trezegol not on
the list? Domenech cannot use the "well he plays in Serie B" as an excuse anymore, Juventus is back in Serie A....and doing very well. He cannot use that Trezeguet is not showing results - he leads Serie A with 7 goals already. So what bullsh*t does Domenech us for not selecting the striker? "Because there is lots of competitors for the forward role..." huh? what? Lots of competition? Isn't that always the case for any half decent footballing nation?

So rather than taking one of France's leading scorers he decides that wants to instead include Manchester United's just back to the pitch striker - Saha. He has a whopping 2 goals for ManU this season, obviously far better than Trezegol's 7. And not that he would ever do this, but Henry has not been lighting it up in Spain...but he is the Teflon player.

What really surprises me, once again, is Domenech's short sightedness. He must realize that France are playing two weaker teams. Granted, if France cannot defeat the Faroe Islands without Trezeguet they do not deserve to go to the Euro. However, Lithuania demonstrated in the first game how they are going to approach Les Bleus - pack in the defense, defend the 18 yard box with 9 defenders. The perfect situation for a player that is a "fox of the box" a player that can also score from crosses and high balls. Not Saha, Henry, Ribery, or Malouda's strengths. What is really surprising to me is that in selecting Rothen, Domench has a player capable of launching clinical crosses into the box...would be nice to have someone that can do something with those crosses.

Finally, I think that this non selection is poor "people management" on the part of Domenech. His handling of Trezegeut has been nothing short of abysmal. He selects him, puts him on the bench, makes him play B' team games, starts him, and then does not select him for no good reason. Is Trezeguet to blame for the goalless two games the French suffered versus Italy and Last time I checked Henry was not lighting up the world at the San Siro. Last time I checked France did not beat Scotland as a team, not because of Trezegol.

Domenech is on the hot seat, he has to get three positive results over the next 3 games...and hope for some help. I think having the Turin striker as an option would make this task much easier....but I fear that if it comes does to getting a result in Ukraine and Trezegol some how has a role in a poor result, Domenech will have his whipping boy....not what this world class striker deserves.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where Wenger will spend his millions

It is well publicized that Arsenal had a record year last season in terms of business and that Wenger is not sitting on a mountain of cash for the January transfer window. So this got me and Sam thinking while munching on $7.00 sandwiches at Fenway park. First, here are the areas that Arsenal need some depth if not a more viable starting option:

  • Keeper - Lamehands and Aluminumhands do not instill the greatest faith in me for either a deep Champions League run or a run in England. Yes Lehmann was an integral part of the team when it made its run to the Paris Champions League finals, but his form has drastically fallen since the 2006 season. Now the long term maybe in the hands of the Polish international, but that is down the road. For this season Arsenal has a glaring hole between the sticks.
  • Central defender - they need depth. If/when Gallas is healthy the defense is solid. With Gallas and Toure in the middle, flanked by Clichy and Sagna the Arsenal defense is strong, fast, and a bit nasty. The big hole is apparent when the Swiss version of Pascal Cygan is playing - Senderos. I keep hearing that Senderos will become a solid center back one day....not sure what day that will be, but it is certainly not on Sunday or any other day for that matter. I feel badly for Senderos, every time he plays he looks like a 5 year old that just had their lunch money stolen. I think he realizes he is completely over matched, he does not even position himself well.
  • Striker - I think they still need a true #1 striker. I realize that Adebayor is having a terrific start of the season....someone on Fox Soccer went so far as saying he was the best striker in the Premiership at this moment. But I am not convinced that the lanky Togolese striker is the answer to Arsenal looking to win silverware. He is a nice #2 striker but sooner rather than later teams will slow him down.
So where can Wenger go "shopping" this transfer season? Here are some players to keep in mind....some are a real stretches...okay probably most of them are -

  • Keeper - Make an offer to PSG for Landreau. Granted the French keeper is the only reason why PSG is not in Ligue 2 this season, but make them an offer. Wenger is adept at poaching players from PSG, remember him snatching an 18 year old named Anelka.
  • Central Defender - not sure who is out there, but here is a stretch - Japp Stam. He is not needed to play everyday, again this depends on Gallas returning to the pitch. Having the bald Dutchman would be a good part time player. And maybe Stam would jump at the chance to play for one of Manchester United's biggest rivals and stick it to SAF.
  • Striker - I am still a fan of Arsenal getting Anelka back. With Bolton on the verge of relegation it might be a good time to poach their former protege to come back to Northern London. But here is a stretch - Drogba. With Mourinho leaving Chelsea, it was clear that one player that was deeply affected was the Ivory Coast striker. There are few teams that could absorb his salary...Arsenal is one of those clubs. Maybe Drogba is angry enough to switch to the cross town rival. Maybe Chelsea would allow him to leave to give the owner's binky, Sheva, a chance to start more consistently, plus if Chelski gets Ronaldino, they will need to free up spots on the pitch for all the prima donas to play on.
So you could have a team consisting of the following -

Landreau - Sagna, Gallas, Toure, Clichy - Diaby, Cesc, Flamini, Van Persie - Adebayor, Drogba

Bench - Rosicky, Hleb, Gilberto, Stam, Bendtner, Eduardo, Eboue

Looks good to me! Maybe this is more for FIFA 2008....but one can always hope

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The crazy world of football

So the past few weeks have shown us how crazy football can be. A couple of thoughts on some goings on -

  • How much has changed after two games for England - Prior to the matches against Israel and Russia, the calls were for Steve McClaren should be sacked and that the team was destine to miss the European tournament. How much has changed after a pair of thumpings at Wembley. Now McClaren is being spoken about as the greatest English manager, Emile Heskey is making noise that he deserves more starts up front for England over players such as Rooney, and now England is a juggernaut. The reality is that England should not have been put in difficulty in this group, even with the injuries. Israel is a gadfly when it comes to qualifying so getting a draw in Israel was par for the course. The 3-0 victory meant that regular service was back. As for Russia, they are overrated...the only reason for them being hyped is due to their manager - Hiddink. Otherwise their talent and ability are middle of the table in Europe. England should be first or second in this group, the match versus Croatia will determine who wins and who ends runner up. I think the reality will come crashing back if and when England struggle against Croatia and McClaren is right back on the hot seat. And no, Heskey, while playing admirably, cannot force Rooney to the bench. And with Owen destined to the injury list I have a feeling we will see Rooney alone up front.
  • The French are in 3rd place in their group! Well that is what happens when you drop 6 points to Scotland! The world has obviously gone mad. Scotland still has the more difficult road to navigate so I think France will still find a way to get to the Euro. But the Scots are not making things easy. The reality is that France still seems to be trying to find their post -Zidane system, determine who their #1 striker is, and how to manage their midfield. Domenech has 3 more matches to get this right, otherwise I am sure he will be joining Jose in the unemployment line, albeit with much less money in the bank.
  • Speaking of Mourinho and Chelsea, it is obvious that the team is spinning out of control. After listening and reading about what has transpired in Stamford Bridge I see this situation similar to what happened to the Yankees with Steinbrenner - a team who's owner forgets that he is an expert in whatever field provided him the fortune necessary to own an expensive toy but not necessarily on the nuances and complexity of modern sports. In the 1980s, the "Boss" thought he knew and understood baseball and got his fingerprints all over the Yankee's day to day operations, almost wrecking on of the most storied franchises in baseball. I see the same thing with Abramovich. Granted not sure what line of business he is expert in, other than cuddling up to former KGB and fleecing his fellow country men and women. But the Siberian Billionaire has started to meddle with the team and players, starting last season when he decided to bring Sheva and Ballack into an already loaded team. It was clear that Mourinho had no use for either high priced, over the hill, superstars. When Mourinho had come to Stamford Bridge, he was allowed to make the moves he wanted, bringing players like Drogba, Kalou, Essein, etc. Granted it was easy to do so with the Abramovich riches, but still players the Special Whiner was targeting. Bringing in two high paid, massive ego players such as Sheva and Ballack placed Mourinho in a difficult managerial position, he had a good rotation going with Drogba being his #1 striker, with Lampard his #1 attacking midfielder...with Sheva and Ballack in the mix where do you play these two players who are used to being the focal points of their squads? Then the Russian Megalomaniac decides that he wants his footie team to play more "entertaining" football...neglecting the fact Chelsea had won back to back premierships, 2 Carling Cups, and an FA Cup....last time I check those 2 Premiership titles had tripled the amount of league titles the Blues had in their trophy case....last time I checked winning silverware was very entertaining. It was clear that Mourinho and Abramovich could no longer maintain a working relationship and the one that writes the checks usually wins those battles. So where does Chelsea head? Based on this week, potentially right into the toilet...well not the Derby toilet they still have way too much talent. Chelsea need to bring in a manager that can hold sway over the players and be distant enough from Abramovich to command some respect...even Hiddink might not fit that bill. Maybe an ex player would be the best option - Vialli? Zola? There would be no perceived baggage between manager and owner, and the link as a former Chelsea player may buy them some slack. I have a feeling that the next manager will not be a "big name" but a manager looking to ride the Chelsea coattails for a season or two and build their resume, since it is clear that Abramovich will not release his tight hold on the team reigns....the story of Ronaldino coming to Stamford Bridge being any indicator. If Chelsea bring in the bucktooth Brazilian, where is he going to play? Behind the strikers? If so, where does Lampard play? Will he be a second, deeper lying striker behind Drogba? If so, where does Sheva play? Rather than dropping record amounts of money on such players maybe Abramovich can look into developing some youth at Chelsea. Or better yet, allow his football people run the team and not look to run this as a fantasy soccer team....
  • Okay let us stay in England and talk about Arsenal. Undefeated in England and winning their opening Champions league game by 3 goals. Shows once again that the "professor" is the brains behind this team and has an uncanny ability to scout and develop talent (when he retires from Arsenal I would pray that the FFF move ocean and mountain to secure his services as technical director for Les Bleus, let him be the primary organizer for scouting and youth development). Many pundits were wondering if Arsenal would end in 5th place or even 6th....except of course for this pundit. Before we get ahead of ourselves we do need to realize that Arsenal have not faced the steel of the Prem (granted the 3-1 drubbing of Tottenham may count as facing some of the Prem's steel...maybe). Arsenal still have to face Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Based on last year's results, Arsenal should fair well against these teams. But if they truly want to challenge and win a title they will need to take the majority of points from these matches. The good news is, Arsenal have fat coffers for transfers....which I think Arsenal still needs some pieces to make a serious run in the Champions League and the Prem. The reality, Arsenal has a weakness in goal and I still believe need a big time striker, Adebayor while having a great start of the season I do not see as a #1 striker that carries you in the Champions League or the Prem. Van Persie, a great player, but injury prone. Maybe with this large war chest Wenger can get a true #1 keeper and a #1 striker....the other area I would like to see some depth is in central defense. I still cringe when Senderos is on the pitch.
I realize there is more goings on, but these are some interesting early season stories I wanted to comment on. There are other interesting situations - Lyon in France, Scolari losing it in Portugal, Adu in Portugal.....maybe later this week.