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.

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/news/story?id=485512&cc=5901

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 surprised...how 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 Milan....to 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 out...no 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 -

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/internationals/7106753.stm

The Pots:

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

Pot One:
Switzerland
Austria
Greece
Holland

Pot Two:
Croatia
Italy
Czech Republic
Sweden
Pot Three:
Germany
Romania
Portugal
Spain
Pot Four:
Poland
France
Turkey
Russia

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
Switzerland
Sweden
Germany
Russia

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

Germany and Sweden through

Group 2
Austria
Croatia
Romania
France

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
Greece
Italy
Portugal
Turkey

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
Holland
Czech
Spain
Poland

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 finishing....case 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 defenders...off 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" back...at 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 - http://www.lequipe.fr/Football/breves2007/20071108_135905Dev.html

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 well...so 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"....no 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.
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