Friday, June 29, 2007

Copa America - Argentina 4 US 1..."flattering score" or reality check?

The Copa America has already had its share of shockers: the Paraguay 5-0 drubbing of Columbia, the Mexico 2-0 defeat of Brazil, and the the 4-1 loss by the US to Argentina.

Okay which statement does not fit? I would say the 4-1 Argentina victory. Had you watched the game on Gol TV and listened to the talking heads on the broadcast you would think that it was a miracle that the Argentines eked out a 3 goal victory. Let us come back to reality for a second. Before I start with my comments, I realize the US sent a young, experimental squad, but I honestly believe the difference between the "b" squad is not that far in talent from the "a" squad.

  • International football rarely witnesses 6-0 or 9-0 drubbings anymore. Even minnows such as Andorra can hold football powers such as England to "small" 3-0 victories or Georgia can "only" lose to France 1-0 (I realize the Germans did put up 13 goals against San Marino....but San Marino? I think the US could take them). International football has become a truly global game, with players moving all over the world to play in a multitude of leagues. Even players from nations such as Georgia find themselves on power houses in the Italian league. So the fact the US is heading in to a game against one of the world's true football powers as an underdog is not a surprise, but to think the US would take a 6-0 trashing is a bit of a stretch. I am the first one to criticize the hype that can surround the prospects of the US national team, but I am also not naive enough not to recognize the improvement and advancement of US football compared to what the product resembled 25 years ago. I remember days when the US national team would play Racing Paris and lose 7-0...those days are behind.
  • Football games follow a similar pace - cautious first half, adjustments at half time and second half attack or defend depending on the desired outcome. The game last night followed this pace....granted there were two early goals. But the score was level after 20 minutes and the first half then followed suit. The US played 5 defenders with a covering midfield and looked to spring Twellman or Johnson on the break. But otherwise they let the Argentines control the ball, the second half demonstrated the still gapping difference between the two nations. 3 crushing goals from the world class team was a true demonstration of their class. The combination between Riquelme, Messi and Crespo demonstrated the difference in skill. The fact the Gol TV commentator, Ray Hudson, kept babbling about the fact the US was unlucky, that had the ball bounced a couple of inches one way the US would not have given up the goal....wait a second....aren't world class players suppose to make plays that weekend warriors, mere mortal professionals, and other hopefuls can only dream of? Someone needs to slap some common sense into Hudson, I realize he is a fountain of over exaggerated drivel, but yesterday was ridiculous.
  • The bottom line - the US got man handled by the Argentines. Were it not for a penalty shot (and I have seen that "foul" waved off by plenty of officials elsewhere), the US would have been shut out. At one point in the second half the US were being out shot 14-4...ouch...and I cannot even recall the 4 shots the US got off. The US played as a defensive block for 60 minutes, but a game is 90 minutes, someone needs to remind Mr Hudson this as well. The US strikers looked pedestrian. Twellman who plays well in the MLS or against CONCACAF teams looked over matched going up against the Argentinian back line (thanks to Brett for that analysis). Johnson used his pace to give some semblance of being dangerous, but once he came close to the scoring zone he would timidly pull the ball back and look to pass rather than look to challenge Heinze, Milito or Ayala. Strikers who also have ridiculous pace - Ronaldo (the Portugese not Brazilian), Henry, Messi, Owen (during his early days) - would run at defenders, force them to defend, attempt to pull in another defender before passing the ball or if they only had one on one defending would look to beat said defender. It does you no good to be the first on to the ball near the 18 yard box to only slow down and allow the defense to regroup. Had Johnson made the Owen run from 1998 he might have pulled the ball back inside the 18 to allow Scholes et al to catch up......
  • These types of games are good for nations such as the US, this is a learning process. Get some of the youth a taste of what it is like playing high level international football. But let us not get ahead of ourselves...Mr Hudson....holding Argentina to a 1-1 draw for 60 minutes is not an indicator that UEFA should start engraving the World Cup trophy with United States of America just yet. And had Donovan and Beasley been present I am not sure the game would have been much different. I actually think that had Donovan been there the US might have looked even worse....would Landon play any defense? Would Landon's "pace" and skill been highlighted after one - two booted tackle from Heinze? Or would we see the Donovan of big games, the talented player who avoids contact and who disappears. I have a feeling we would have seen the Donovan of the Ghana game who rather than attacking the goal when he had no one between himself and the keeper he decided to pass the ball to the penalty spot where the entire Ghana defense was waiting......The one player that might have made a slight difference would have been Dempsey, I think his willingness to dribble at players and take chances may have given the US a glimmer of hope to threaten the Argentinian goal.
  • Finally...Messi is scary. The pass he gave on the goal to Crespo was outstanding (and it was not "lucky" per the GolTV commentators). He was well defended in the first half but you could tell that at some point he would break down the defense, which he did. Before we start talking about Feddie Adu as the next Pele and potentially the best footballer in the world, take a look at Messi. Oh yeah, and only 2 years separates the players in age, but in footballing maturity I would say closer to 10 years.
The Copa America should be interesting this year with Argentina determined to lift silverware and Brazil standing in their way. The US will benefit greatly, whether or not they advance or lose 3 straight. And of course the US soccer pundits will over hype whatever the US does, not realizing that 60 minutes does not mean a team is ready to threaten the top echelon footballing nations.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Arsenal the new Leeds? wow

Interesting article post-Henry to Barca with regards to the Gunners. I have been remiss to not posting anything with regards to the Henry to Barca move. So a few thoughts:

  • I have been clear that I thought Henry was destined to pursue his career elsewhere. I think it makes sense for a player of his caliber to pursue the goal of European Club silverware at Barcelona. He would now have played in 4 of the "Big 5" leagues - France, Italy, England and now Spain. The move to Barcelona will give Henry a fresh start and allow him to grow as a player. Barca is a more veteran club, and has demonstrated their ability to succeed in Europe.
  • Arsenal had to move on, the rumors that kept swirling around their captain for 2 seasons was not allowing the club to make the moves and take the decisions necessary to achieve their ultimate goal - Champions League glory. The club could not allow this story to be the head line every time the transfer window opened. The question now remains, who, if anyone will Arsenal add to become the clubs #1 striker? The name of Anelka keeps swirling and it would be interesting to see him on his second tour of duty with the north Londoners. Arsenal will need to make a solid move if they are to maintain their position as a top -4 club in England.
  • Barcelona finally got their man, I am not sure if they will be able to partner Henry with Eto'o up front, since I believe that Barcelona will look to move their Cameroonian striker, especially after all the apparent or real disagreement between himself, the manager and Ronaldino. Barca might look to move Guily, Eto'o, Gudjohnson and Deco. However they have already added Yaya Toure which will infuse youth, toughness and talent in the midfield. With the Henry addition I would say that Barca is already a leg up this off season.

This transfer season is far from over and both clubs have moves yet to be made. Arsenal keep talking about the debt associated with the Emirates and why they cannot spend, an excuse I cannot totally believe. With the associated money from TV, Champions League, sponsorship and now gate, I find it hard to believe that Arsenal cannot service the debt and still have some left over cash to pursue players such as Anelka, Ribery, or Torres.

It will be interesting to see the squad that comes out on the pitch on Aug 11th against Fulham, but I am sure that there will be one or two new faces.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Anelka or Trezeguet to Arsenal...or neither?

With the Henry rumors getting warmer by the day, the question of who will replace the Arsenal striker continue. The strongest appears to be Eto'o heading back to London as Henry heads to Spain. However there are other rumors - Anelka making his return to where he shined as a teenager as well as Trezeguet heading to Arsenal (of course that move is rumored to be made to keep Henry happy and in town).

I cannot see Anelka heading to Arsenal. I think that the "incredible sulk," while he has appeared to be turning his attitude around is still someone that could at any moment become a cancer again...reason why he is on his 47th team (at least it appears that way).

As for Trezegol, I also cannot envisage him wearing the red and white of Arsenal. If Trezeguet leaves Juventus, which appears to be imminent, I have a feeling he will end up back in France with Lyon.

Here are my odds (for entertainment purposes only) on who will be the next Arsenal striker:

  • Henry 20-1. Three straight seasons of rumors prove to be the charm. He heads to Barca.
  • Eto'o 4-1. Assuming the above comes true and Milan does not poach him first, he would look great wearing the #9 kit in North London
  • Trezeguet 50-1. Wenger does know the talismatic striker from his days at Monaco, but I think Trezeguet does not fit the Wenger style of play and is too static a striker to fit the Arsenal system
  • Anelka 6-1. I think that Anelka would like to come back to where he made a name for himself. He stated he wanted to go to a big name club, Man U have their strikers, Chelsea as well, and not sure he wants to revisit Liverpool.
  • Landon Donovan 1,000,000-1. Not enough surfing in London and having to face folks like Essien as well as play in front of fans that really care about footie.
  • Torres 45-1. Would be nice to see the matador in Northern London, but looks like other clubs already have the inside track to him.
  • Tevez 12-1. The Goat is on the move, at least that is what would make sense. Arsenal were rumored to be interested when he first crossed the Atlantic. While there are no rumors to say so, I would think that Wenger would only be more interested in Tevez after watching him single handily save West Ham from relegation.
Of course Wenger may not signe anyone, realizing that Van Persie should be at 100% and combine him with Adebayour up front with Walcott waiting in the wings.

Lalas flaps his gums once again

Well well well, the excessive hype and verbal diarrhea continues from the former US stopper - Alexi Lalas. As David Beckham ends his European club career, at least for now, and leaves for the greener fields of the MLS there are those in Europe who claim Beckham is heading into semi-retirement by switching from Spain to the US.

First, I do believe that Beckham's move to the MLS was, at the time it was made, a semi-retirement decision. Let us not forget that when Beckham signed with the LA Donovans, he was rotting on the Real Madrid bench and had been told by the English national team that he was not longer going to wear the three lions. Additionally, no other major club had made any offers or shown any interest in signing the former England captain. There were rumors that Tottenham may take a nibble, but that was about it. How things have changed in a few months. Beckham was re-inserted into the line up by Capello (who had to eat his words), a move to shake up his team which allow Real to surge end of season to the league title. Beckham's play, and England's struggles, forced another manager to eat crow. McClaren had to go back on his foolish statements of never calling up the bleached blond talisman. McClaren, desperate to qualify for the Euro as well as save his neck, saw Beckham as his savior. On the short term, it would appear to have worked. Beckham being influential in the friendly against Brazil and in the qualifier against soccer power Estonia. Lets face it, had his recent form been evident all season Beckham would have either resigned with Real Madrid or headed to another European club (maybe he would have been exiled to Fenebache like Roberto Carlos...then again the MLS might be a safer option than the cauldron of Istanbul football). The rumors that Beckham and his agent tried to opt of his contract are indicators of his desire to remain at high level football.

Having said that, I find Lalas' comments quite funny, although I am sure he is serious when he says them. I realize that Lalas needs to defend his team and league. However, lets not push the limits on common sense.

The MLS "on par" with the Premiership? Are you kidding me? Would the MLS champs, Houston, survive in the Prem? I am not even talking about contending, I mean survive. I doubt it. Does Lalas watch the Premiership, he claims that those that put down the MLS are not watching, maybe he is not watching the English league.

I realize that Lalas is not making the assertion that Houston Dinosaurs would compete in the Prem, but he did say " honestly believe if you took a helicopter and grabbed a bunch of MLS players and took them to the perceived best league in the world they wouldn't miss a beat and the fans wouldn't notice any drop in quality." Again, there is no doubt that you take a handful of players and sow them into the Prem they can hold their own, such as McBride, Howard, Dempsey and Freidel. But a full team....doubtful, even a team of all stars. And before I hear, "well the all stars did beat Fulham" .... again please. Teams that come to the US in the summer for their tours, are not even close to in season form and leverage the time in the US to run around, drink beer, and pick up American Coeds. They do not want to pick up any injuries and see what their youth talent can do. One game does not equate what a team would have to endure playing a full Prem season, including FA and Carling cup games.

Finally, Angel is the new "star" of the MLS....this is the same Angel that was relegated to the bench in favor of John Carew......with Aston Villa, not Liverpool or Arsenal. So basically an out of form Columbian is the star of your league and yet you think that it remains on par with the Premier league. Oh yeah, and lets not forget Captain America, Claudio Reyna. Reyna had a very respectable career in Europe playing for the likes of Manchester City and Rangers, but he came back to the MLS when he realized that European clubs were not lining up to sign him.

Off the top of my head here are the top 5 players from each league (again this is leaves plenty of room for debate, I realize this list is just an ad lib):

MLS - Angel, Donovan, Twellman, DeRosario and EJohnson
Premiership - Ronaldo, Rooney, Essein, Drogba, and Cesc

Here are the youngsters being touted:
MLS - Freddie Adu
Premiership - Theo Walcott

Hmmmm....if there is such a difference between the top five how would the rest of the league look in comparison (then again maybe Lalas believes that Donovan is "on par" with Ronaldo)?

Now let's look at England vs US in the World Cup the past 4 tournaments. Lalas points out to 2 quarter finals to one, yet the English ones were "lackluster." Getting to the 1/4 finals is getting to the 1/4 finals. And I rather not get into the whole 2002 World Cup run by the US.....but for statistics - World Cups played - 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006

US National team:
  • 15 games played
  • 3 Wins (.200 winning percentage)
  • 3 Draws
  • 9 Losses
  • 13 goals scored (0.86 goals per game)
  • 22 goals conceded (1.46 goals per game)
  • Finishing - 14th, 32nd (last place), 8th and 25th
English National team:
  • 1994 - did not qualify (of course the 1994 US team had Lalas and they were the hosts...)
  • 14 Games played
  • 7 Wins (.500 winning percentage)
  • 5 Draws
  • 2 Losses
  • 19 goals scored (1.35 goals per game)
  • 9 goals conceded (0.64 goals per game)
  • Finishing - 2nd Round, 1/4 final. 1/4 final
I guess Lalas does not want to get the numbers get in the way of his statements. If we include the 1990 world cup then the stats would be even better for England since they made the semi finals in Italy.

Finally, maybe Lalas is correct in stating that Beckham will be bigger than Jordan or Tiger Woods....or maybe not. Not to say that Beckham is not on the same marketing level as Woods or Jordan, but to state that "David Beckham is at an entirely different level." Again, sounds like Lalas trying real hard to pump up his league.

While I understand what Lalas is trying to do, maybe he needs to stop acting like a complete yahoo. He should talk about the value having Beckham and others will be for the MLS, but to start comparing the MLS to European leagues is ridiculous and really makes him appear completely void of any grasp of reality. Maybe a start would be to have the MLS champions play in the Copa Libertadores, see how they fair.

Well, Lalas is making for good print with his verbal diarrhea...I wonder if Beckham realizes that the bar has been raised even higher and that what he thought would be a good semi pro league to come to, play a few games, get paid lots of money and allow your talented wife to get into acting is now really the same league as the Premiership.

David bring your A game, the Galaxy vs Revolution games should remind you of the Manchester United vs Arsenal matches or the Real Madrid - Barca matches......

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Fire Grows Hotter

According to the Times, Wenger would be open to discussions about an Henry to Barca move. Maybe the professor was growing weary of all the speculation over the past two seasons and wants to strike while he can still get value for his star striker.

I think the move will happen. Gilberto has taken the reigns as captain, and Arsenal are building around Cesc and the other youngsters. Question is, can Wenger get Eto'o in return or will he make a play for Torres to replace Henry?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

USA to win world cup in 2010....or maybe later

I read this article and had to shake my head.....the opening statement from Mr Freedman:

"The U.S. is going to win the World Cup.There, I got your attention. Of course, I don't know when that's going to happen, and I seriously doubt it will be in South Africa 2010. But even the haters agree: Sooner or later, the Yanks are going to break through"

Hmmmmm, "sooner or later, the Yanks are going to break through" not sure I agree with that statement. Now could the US win a World Cup in 2090 or maybe they will pull off a huge shock in South Africa....or neither might come true. While I am all for yahooism when it comes to sports writing, the American press is a little overboard when it comes to International Football. Playing in the CONCACAF has warped the perception of the quality and value of the US national team. When the third best team in the region is Costa Rica....that does not say much about the quality of the region. Now the quality has absolutely risen in the past decade, no doubt. But so have the other regions - noticeable Asia with the now inclusion of Australia. And especially in Africa, where I think the first non European/South American nation will win the World Cup. But let us not get ahead of ourselves with US soccer.

I do agree that these tournaments will go a long way for the US development. The one advantage the European nations have is that there is no long break between World Cups. With the European Cup being played next year, nations are always competing (France and Italy met one another a month after the WC finals for a Euro drop in intensity). Whether it be to qualify for one of the tournaments or playing in them, their international teams have a regular rhythm, they never need to find ways to "pump" themselves up for the World Cup. However for CONCACAF there is no equivalent, so the Gold Cup will have to make due. So, yes, this tournament is important for the US national team....the real important tournament will be the Copa America (sorry the Confederations Cup, that the US will qualify for if they win the Gold Cup is not an "important" tournament...even though Les Bleus have won two of them....).

The Copa will pit the US against South American nations - Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Paraguay etc. This should be more of a test and developmental ability for the US. Even if the US pulls some great upsets and finds themselves winning the tournament would that make them world cup favorites? NO! Although it would be a good feather for their caps.

Okay, how about the U20 World Cup? Well that is always a nice little tournament. One where you can see the stars of tomorrow - Messi, Figo, Maradona, Adriano, and Henry to name a few. It is a great place to measure the individual talent of certain nations. Is it a leading indicator of a senior sides future success? Yes and no, while Argentina and Brazil have made this their own little trophy award ceremony the true value is in the other teams that qualify and how they fare. Nations such as France, Italy and Germany have not always qualified nor fared well, but seem to do well on the senior level. While nations such as China, Uzbekistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Syria, Canada, Zambia, Kazakhstan and UAE have been participants, some more regularly than others, yet none from this non - exhaustive list would ever strike fear in any senior squad. Oh and let us not forget that Freddy Adu might "break out" at this tournament....he might....then again even if he does, heading back to Salt Lake might not be the most fertile ground for continued development. At the last tournament the break out player was Messi....who was already entrenched at Barca, slight difference. (I do agree however, that Altidore could be a revelation at this tournament and in my opinion will be more valuable to US soccer than Adu)

So where does this leave us? US a world cup champ in waiting? These three tournaments will help, but fall far short of what is needed to make the US a contender for the WC semi finals, let alone the finals or a trophy. If the US really wants to elevate its game, then the CONCACAF qualifying needs to be scrapped and rolled into the South American qualifying. Force Mexico and the US to compete with Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and the rest of the South American nations for a World Cup spot. The US and Mexico may miss out on 1 or 2 world cups, but if they are serious about elevating their game this is the only way they can achieve this. If the US wants to defeat nations such as Ghana, Italy, the Czechs or any other soccer nation on the world's biggest stage, then they need to learn how to defeat Brazil in Rio or Argentina at the Bombonero .... playing one time at Azteca Stadium does not do enough.

But that would deprive the American pundits from waxing lyrically on how the US will finally win the World if it is just a matter of time. Tell that to the Dutch and the Spanish........never mind the soccer powers emerging in Africa - Cameroon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, etc......

Monday, June 11, 2007

Titi to Barca

Interesting....according to Sports24, Titi is on his way to Barca....will Eto'o be on the return flight?

The Spanish Race - down to the wire

This weekend, in between navigating life issues, I was able to watch GolTVs excellent coverage of the Spanish race. For those of you that are not aware that domestic soccer continues (and I am not talking about MLS), the Spanish league is down to the wire, next weekend is the last fixture with a real dog fight at the top. With Real Madrid and Barcelona tied at 73 points with Seville at 71 points, the last day will determine who wins this seasons title.

What was great watching this weekend was how things were changing at every minute. With Real Madrid going down 2-1 against Zaragoza while Barca was ahead 2-1 against cross city rivals Espanyol.....on top of all this Barca had scored a goal via the "hand of god" when Messi appeared to have punched in a goal. Both games saw draws being pulled out of the fire at the ultimate minute.

The final week will see both Barca and Real looking for victories, with Seville hoping to see both top clubs losing and they winning. Of course Real Madrid are in the driver's seat, knowing that if they win they secure the title.

However, what really struck me this weekend was watching Beckham. While I am not on top of his fan club list, far from it, I have to admit he looked very dangerous on the pitch. His ability to find players inside the 18 yard box on both set pieces and the run of play made him a dangerous weapon for Real. While he is not a true "#10" he acts as the maestro for the Real Club, with players such as VanNistelrooy, Raul, and Robinho who are offensively gifted but are not players who can distribute the ball and control the tempo of the game with their passing. Beckham does so with his play.

I find it interesting that we are starting to see articles such as the following -

Do you think Cappello and Real are having second thoughts about letting him go? Do you think Beckham has regrets leaving for the "greener fields" of the US? Or is this, as my Brett said, "What Posh wants, Posh gets" . . .

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Essential is Done - France 1 Georgia 0

Les Bleus head to their summer vacation sitting atop group B, their game in Scotland is the only match where they dropped any points suffering a shock 1-0 defeat. They sit 2 points clear of Italy and 3 points clear of Scotland, however the next round of games will determine who emerges as the top two teams in this group.

Group B

Faroe Islands80082270

First the game - no surprise, the Georgians packed it in, much more than did the Ukrainians on Saturday. An interesting statistic, at the midpoint of the first half, France had 13 shots, Georgia had zero.....indicative of how both teams were going to approach this match. France utterly dominated, the combo Nasri - Ribery - Anelka - Malouda worked very well. They moved the ball around with short passes at times were too unselfish, passing rather than shooting (an example was at one point Nasri and Ribery had a nice give and go, Nasri had a clear channel at the 18 but rather than shoot and test the keeper he looked to pass off). Makelele and Toulalan were recovering a tremendous amount of balls showing their value in the holding role in the midfield. Of course with all this pressure it took Nasri to liberate the French just past the half hour mark. After a strong run in the box by Ribery to the end line, his cross found Nasri at the penalty spot who coolly finished in side the left side post. A great finish for the 19 year old.

The remainder of the match was much of the same, the French owning possession and moving the ball at will, but having trouble finishing. Clerc having the best opportunity at the start of the second half where he inexplicably pushed his tap in from inside 10 yards wide. There were some scares where the Georgians look to break on the counter but just did not have the talent to beat the French back line. They also could not generate enough set pieces to really look to counter the French.

While there is not much to criticize Les Bleus on (other than not scoring 2 or 3 more goals) but the main area of question I would have is once again the selection of forewarned I am getting back on my soap box....
France have had difficulty with the aerial game, both defensively on the offensive side. When healthy, Henry is not a force scoring with his head. Anelka is okay but not know for this part of his game, neither is Cisse, or Saha. And you are not going to win many aerial battles with Malouda, Ribery or Nasri.....However you know you are playing two teams that will most likely pack in the defense making passing in the last 20 meters extremely difficult (the one goal against Georgia, there were at least 6 Georgian players in the box against only 3 French players), so why not get a striker who can score on crosses and is a pure poacher, someone who can latch on to rebounds and does not need the "perfect" pass to score? And that player is....Trezeguet....I realize that the last few games in Blue he has not been at the top of his game, but these are exactly the types of games a player of his talent can blow open the match. I watched the French get plenty of space on the wings yesterday, time to cross, but no one comfortable calling for the ball. It was clear that Nasri and Ribery could run through most of the high Georgian defense but did not have the targets to pass at the end of their runs. Anelka was dangerous but always appeared to have at least two defenders on him, another striker such as Trezeguet may have created more space in the "scoring zone." The point may be moot, with France securing 6 points after the last two games they head into the summer break exactly where they need to be, and it is clear that Domenech does not value his Juventus striker as much as this blogger does.

Looking forward. The past two games will give Domenech some pause for thought when the "old guard" returns - Henry, Vieira, Sagnol, and Saha. Anelka appears firmly entrenched as one of the striker options, will he find himself paired with Henry? And if so who else sits? Vieira will most likely force Toulalan to the bench, finding a Vieira - Makelele partnership once again (however Toulalan demonstrated that he is a quality replacement for the holding role). But who will sit amongst - Ribery, Malouda, or Nasri?

Logic would dictate that Nasri would find himself back on the replacement bench, having Ribery and Malouda on the wings supporting Anelka and Henry.....but I would vote for Malouda. The Ribery - Nasri combo looked very dangerous the past two games. Both can play the "meneur de jeu" role very capably (so can Malouda, but Nasri and Ribery have a little more rapport). Ribery and Nasri, supporting Anelka and Henry could cause many defenses some serious problems, especially since every player can pop up on either wing, in the middle, deep, etc.

Domenech has the summer to work out these problems, but they are problems I am happy we have. During the last world cup, the French were criticized for its age, with the rise of Nasri, Ribery, Toulalan as well as Diarra, Benzema and Diaby gives hope that the future remains bright.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The "Second Half" - France vs Georgia

French national team manager Domenech told his players that the victory over Ukraine only represented the First Half...the second half would be the match against Georgia. After that they are off for summer break.

Tomorrow's match at Auxerre between Les Bleus and the former Soviet Union nation, should be a victory for the French. But this international football and many things can happen...look at Italy's 2-1 victory over the Faroe Islands this past weekend!

I am glad to read the players saying the right thing, that they are not overlooking this match and that once the final whistle sounded this past Saturday they were all focused on the Georgian match. So how will Domenech line them up?

First, Coupet is out due to a minor injury meaning Landreau will himself tending the goal for Les Bleus, I will not lose sleep over this.

How about the rest of the team? This is how I would line up les Bleus: in a 4-2-2-2....go on the offense from the get go and put the game out of reach early. Please don't give us another France - Lithuania where we had to wait to the dying minutes for the liberating goal.

Goal - Landreau, no brainer (although Frey playing would not make me lose sleep either)
Defense - Abidal, Thuram, Escude (Gallas was doubtful for the Ukraine game so why not give him a rest, although every time he sits France have lost recently....more useless trivia) Sagna (give the Ligue 1 defender of the year his first cap in front of his home crowd).
Midfield - Makelele, who just stated his desire to carry on for country, playing in front of the defense. Partner him once again with Toulalan and the holding midfield should be fine. In front of these two I would slot Ribery and Nasri. Allow them to roam the pitch and support the two strikers up front.
Strikers - Anelka...what can you say, he is becoming more and more indispensible to the National Team. Partner him with Cisse who is returning back to Auxerre. Cisse has been chomping at the bit for a good performance in Blue, this could be a great occasion to allow the former Auxerre sniper to shine.

I might even decide to take out Toulalan and slot in Malouda, put 3 attacking midfielders with Makelele in cover. Why all this offense? Simply because I believe Georgia will look to pack in the defense so France will need a variety of weapons to try and pry open what should be the defensive wall infront of the Georgian net. The Ukrainians this past weekend did the same but at least had one striker high on the pitch, Georgia may have all 11 behind the ball. With Cisse and Anelka pressuring the defense, channels should be opened for the dribblers - Nasri and Ribery.

This game is vital for the French, nothing other than 3 points would be acceptable, even if it has to come in the dying minutes. Reason is simple - once we start up Euro qualifiers again in Sept France has a huge rematch with the Italians in Italy and then a rematch against the Scots in Paris. Italy play Lithuania - should get the full 3 points (although they were only able to draw with the Baltic nation during the first round), Scotland - Faroe Islands, again Scotland should get the full 3 points. Assuming this holds true, France could head to the summer break with their 2 point lead on the Azurri and their 3 point lead on the Scots. This would place Les Bleus in a strong position heading to Italy. They would know that they most likely would need 4 points from their next two fixtures to allow them to place one foot into Switzerland/Austria....however a draw or gasp as loss to Georgia and look out...the summer will seem much longer and hotter than should be.

Guy Roux to northern France to manage Lens

Guy Roux, famous for building the small club of Auxerre into a French team to be reckoned with, will now join Lens. Why should we care? Primarily due to Roux's unmatched ability to find and develop talent where others have failed. It was Roux that saw in a "troubled" youth Eric Cantona a talent unmatched in the game. The story is when he recruited Cantona he told Mother and Father Cantona that their son would one day be wearing the French National Team kit and that he would personally call them when that happened....Cantona became an French football icon.

He also developed players such as Cisse, Blanc, Boli and Mexes to name a few.

His arrival at Lens will be very interesting to watch. Lens is already one of Frances better clubs, having been accustom to being at the top of the table in recent seasons. They have a loyal following and a good base. While I am not ready to say Lens will dethrone Lyon, if Roux brings a fraction of his wiliness to the Sang and Or, good things should follow to northern France.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Les Bleus fulfill their contract - half way home

France 2 - Ukraine 0

Goals from Ribery and Anelka gives France the full 3 points in this "trap" Euro Qualifier for Les Bleus. Heading into the match it was clear that nothing short of a victory would satisfy the French. In a tight group, every point, especially those at home, are and will be crucial. France headed into the match tied with Ukraine, Scotland and 2 points ahead of Italy. With a home match against Georgia, a team that France easily defeated at the opening round of qualifiers, this match was going to set the pace for the French team before they head into the summer break.

My thoughts -

First the line up. Nothing too unexpected, other than Nasri playing behind Anelka. The defense was what I expected, especially with Sagnol out. Coupet in goal, Abidal, Thuram, Gallas, Clerc along the back line. The holding midfielders - Toulalan and Makelele, no surprise with Ribery and Malouda on the wings. The young Nasri sitting behind Anelka was a bit of the surprise. While I had suggested that would be a good combo, but not sure the 19 year old was ready to be given the defacto role of #10 where the comparisons to Zidane would only mount (both are of Algerian decent, both from Marseille, both play the offensive midfield role). Unlike playing in a friendly against Austria this was a qualifying match against the a World Cup 1/4 finalists, a team that was going to pack in the defensive side of the park.

Thoughts on the game - overall the French dominated the play, Ukraine, much to be expected sat back looking for the counter and really looking for a draw and the valuable point, knowing that France need to come to Kiev on the last day of qualifiers. This appeared to work in the first half. France built up the play from the back, but could not crack the final 20 - 24 yards. What was telling was seeing the French carry up the ball and Ukraine sending one player to press while the other 9 dropped deep into coverage. More remarkable was every time a pass went to an offensive player, the Ukraine marker would be instantly upon the play. This broke any rhythm France had in their offensive end. On the other side, it was clear that Ukraine would be dangerous on set pieces, something France MUST figure out if it is to build and contend for the Euro. An early set piece by Ukraine saw a wide open Yezerskiy escape Abidal only to miss on a highly difficult cross (not sure what Abidal was doing, on the replay it was evident he just allowed the Ukrainian to stroll right down the penalty box), but the danger of a set piece goal remained. The Ukraine also looked dangerous on corners, with France marking tentatively and apparently without any urgency.

The second half was an entirely different story, the pressure from Les Bleus started to show and the Urkainian defense appeared to tire and lose their discipline. The Ribery goal was similar to his first goal for the French against Spain in the World Cup, he beat the defense on what appeared to be an off side trap and found himself one on one against the keeper. It has to be said that his first touch of a great through ball by Makelele is what made the goal. However, there were three Urkainian defenders that were beaten by the solo run from Ribery....apparent tired legs. France stuck quickly after that with a nice piece of work from "L'enfant Terrible" of French football - Anelka. He too took a through ball from the midfield and with a piece of individual skill flicked the ball over his head and his defender to open up the angle for a deadly left footed strike that left he keeper no chance. At that point the game was academic, only a last minute run and strike by Ribery that skimmed the outside post could have changed the score sheet to 3-0.

France won what was a deserved victory. While Ukraine was playing for the draw they did have some dangerous moments. In the first half only the last ditched efforts of Abidal saved Coupet from a point blank shot as well as set pieces.

The Players:

  • Coupet - Made a couple of important interventions on crosses as well as on a header on a corner kick early in the match. Otherwise was not called upon to make any spectacular saves. As usual, very steady as the French back stop. Grade: B+
  • Abidal - Huge mistake on the first half free kick, how he allowed his man to go to goal completely unabated is beyond me. Made up for it with a strong intervention inside his penalty area, and demonstrated his willingness and ability on the offensive end. His speed and runs created some major problems for the Ukrainian defense. Grade: B-, (have to give him the B- due to what could have been a very costly lapse in marking on the first half free kick.)
  • Gallas - Was not 100% but did enough to hold down the middle of the french defense with Thuram. Not called upon to do too much. Grade B
  • Thuram - The "boss" at the back. However the "boss" is showing his age. While still hugely talented and intelligent, does not have the legs any more to make up for mistakes. Was beaten at times to balls he would have easily controlled 3-5 years ago. Still takes perfect runs to balls and is always in good position. Grade B
  • Clerc - Quiet game, not called upon too much. Did play well defensively, almost got to a Nasri free kick at the start of the second half. While he will not make anyone forget Sagnol, he is a solid player and will develop. Grade B- (did well defensively but lacking on offense)
  • Makelele - As always the engine of the team. Was tireless on defense, tackled hard, and was the genesis of the first goal with a brilliant through ball from inside the half way line, even made some dangerous runs at the defense of Ukraine. Grade A- (due in large part to his offensive contributions)
  • Toulalan - Also played a solid game along side Makelele. He did a wonderful job bridging the defense and offense, even attempting some long distance shots. Grade B +
  • Malouda - Started off the match strong, posing a real threat on the wing. Had a golden opportunity early in the second half to opening up the score but rather than shooting with his weaker right foot he tried to center the ball to Anelka. Did offer the ball to Anelka on the second goal. But overall was not the decisive factor. Grade B
  • Ribery - Became stronger as the game wore on. First half he showed some rust from his international absence. Made a perfect run and perfect first touch to open the score, and could have had his brace had his shot in the dying minutes been a few inches inside. Grade B+
  • Nasri - Solid game, really showed strength versus defenders, dangerous on the dribbles and passes. Not bad for a 19 year old. Grade B+
  • Anelka - A year ago if you had told me Anelka may become France's #1 striker I would have chuckled. But on his current form that is just what he may become. With Trezeguet falling out of favor, Henry still injured, Saha not 100% and Cisse working his way into form, Anelka has demonstrated that he oozes with talent. He is dangerous all over the pitch, is not afraid to shoot from anywhere in or around the penalty area, can make his own chances and can take on defenders. His goal was a piece of individual skill and he could have had another on a shot from the top of the 18 yard box. He brings a different element than Titi in that he is a bit more of an workman like striker. He is not the speedster or smooth striker that Henry is, but he makes the most of any a world class stiker should. It will be interesting to see what Domenech does when Henry returns. But for now, Anelka is the #1 striker for les Bleus. Grade - A-