Monday, November 30, 2009

Ireland heading to the World Cup...only if the FIFA is completely mad

The latest in the Titi Henry hand ball saga is that Ireland are now lobbying to be allowed an extra spot in next summer's tournament. The fact that Blatter would even give this idea any legs by saying they discussed it is ridiculous. As I have stated in the past Ireland out played the French in Paris, the French goal should have been disallowed for a hand ball...however the referee did not see the transgression and therefore accorded the goal. That is life. There remains a human element to sports - a referee misses a hand ball, an off sides, gives 3 yellow cards to the same player, does not accord a goal that clearly crossed the line...

We see this in all sports - phantom tags in baseball called out, referees giving a team 5 downs, and countless other situations. Video replay is an answer to some of these issues, but at the end of the day part of sport is the fact humans are the judge of the rules and need to make rapid decisions, sometimes with less than perfect information. Teams suffer the consequences both good and bad. This will not and should not change...the human official should be allowed access to better technology in order to have greater access to information, but in the end it will still come down to human judgment. And that is a part of sports.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Arsenal v Chelsea...the Gunners get pushed around

So the London derby between The Blues and the Gunners was rather one sided...for the club from Stamford Bridge. The final 3-0 scoreline was actually somewhat kind to the North Londoners. What struck me was the fact that Chelsea manhandled the Gunners. The way Drogba owned the Gunners was the best example of this and we do not even have Senderos to blame! Arsenal had no answer for the Ivory Coast international. He ran through and around the Arsenal defenders. What is frightening is that it appears that Drogba is once again motivated and that is dangerous for Chelsea opponents.

This match showed why I think Arsenal are going to be playing catch up with their London rivals. Two main reasons: First, Arsenal do not have the physical edge they once had when the likes of Vieira, Parlour, Gilberto, Edu, Adams to name a few. Now they have a collection of outstandingly talented players, but lack a certain physical edge. They do not have players such as Essein or Drogba who are incredibly physical players on the pitch. Second, Chelsea has the depth needed to win the Premiership - being able to bring players such as Malouda and Deco off the bench and leave the likes of Ballack and Kalou on the bench. Arsenal have better depth than the likes of Wigan or Fulham, but not teams such as Chelsea. Granted much of this is due to their limitless funds, but it is not as if Arsenal is a have not club.

If this game is any indication, Arsenal will and do have enough talent to remain part of the "big 4" but the chasm between the bottom of the big 4 and the top grows greater by the day. Come on Wenger go out and get some steel for this side!

Domenech continues to be under pressure

The latest voice in the "Domenech out" campaign, is the French World Cup winning manager - Aime Jacquet. In a recent statement, the former France manager spoke out that Domenech has overstayed his welcome, saying that in this role one should only stay 4 years otherwise you become stale. That statement could not be any more spot on!

The criticism of of Domenech is nothing new, however this is the first time a peer with such stature makes such a statement. This is very telling, why? The fact that former and current players such as Pires, Liza, Dugarry, Giuly, Mexes, to name a few have been vocal about their distaste for the current French manager is old hat, the fact a manager that won the ultimate triumph for Les Bleus and did so after he too was under intense criticism speaks volumes for where the current manager sits in the eyes of most followers of Les Bleus. What is even more telling is what is not being said or done...mainly that none of the current players seem to be rushing to their manager's defense. It would also appear that none of the current players are telling former players to zip it. Least we forget Henry played with the 98ers - Liza, Dugarry as well as with Pires for both club and country - so the current French captain, could if he wanted, surely make a few calls and tell his former teammates to tone it down. The only issue is that I believe Henry is equally as frustrated, I am sure that the bust up occurred prior to the Romania game has a strong element of truth to it, unlike the backpedalling both camps did post game.

So where does this leave the FFF? Clearly they are steadfast with their desire to stay with Domenech, otherwise they would have sacked him after the awful Euro campaign. It would be awkward if they were to sack the manager after he qualified Les Bleus for the World Cup. What about Domenech? Well he is stubborn and has repeatedly stated that he will not leave because he is not a quitter...good for him...too bad he is also not much of a national team manager. I am not sure if the players can force the manager out. I know the majority of the fans want him out - a recent survey showed that the majority of French have no faith in Domenech. Where does that leave Les Bleus for the World Cup? I fear stuck with Domenech. Which leaves the fans of Les Bleus in a dicey situation - if France does well next summer we are all happy but Dumbenech gets vindicated...or France crashes out, Dumbenech gets canned (hopefully) but France waste an abundance of talent for another tournament. Alas, I fear that France head to South Africa with a huge cloud over their heads. Some teams rally when the are faced with such adversity...I am not sure this group has that mentally since it appears that much of them feel the same malaise. Alas, get ready for Les Bleus to spend a nice 3 game tour of South Africa next summer before heading home.

Friday, November 27, 2009

World Cup groups - a random look at what could be

So in 8 days the World Cup groups will be determined, we get a look at the new Adidas football and we will all start over analyzing which is the group of death, who had the easiest draw, who will move on and who will win it all. But why start in 8 days...I have already seen some "mock" groupings, which are always fun! So I figured I would do one for the Beantown Frog.

So here is a rough look at the what could be the 4 pots - These seem fairly well agreed upon, you could argue that Holland should be in pot 1, but who would you drop? If you say France shame on you, in the past 3 World Cups they have won the title, knocked out first round and runner up...not a bad track record (even with the 2002 debacle). England? 1/4 finalists twice...the other nations? Cannot see one drop. So from these pots we will get the 8 groups.

POT 1-Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, England, Italy, Germany, South Africa

POT 2- Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland

POT 3- USA, Mexico, Honduras, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand

POT 4- Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

The teams you want to avoid from Pot 2 - Holland and Portugal, from Pot 3 - Mexico, South Korea and USA (I think the Americans proved during the Confederations Cup they can be dangerous in any game) from Pot 4 - all the nations are dangerous...

So after doing a random draw here is what I get (I did not try to match these to any group numbers):

Brazil, Holland, North Korea and Ivory Coast: A strong group could be the "group of death." Poor North Korea. I could see either Holland or Ivory Coast through with Brazil, doubt the Samba boys would not emerge in one of the top 2 spots. Brazil and Holland are the class.

Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Paraguay: This is the group of death. A juice Iberian derby between Spain and Portugal. Mexico and Paraguay are no push overs and could sneak in as the second place team. Spain and Mexico advance.

Argentina, Slovenia, USA and Ghana: Ouch a rematch for the US with Ghana, we all know how it ended in Germany. A difficult group for all the teams, Slovenia is no push over and could surprise one of the big fish. With Maradona and Argentina in difficulty could you have a USA - Ghana, top 2 teams? Lets go with the upset and say the US and Ghana get through.

France, Greece, Australia and Uruguay: I did this completely at random, even dorked out and used the rand function in excel to assign I did not trick the system to give Les Bleus are relatively easy draw. In the Soccer by Ives mock group, France get Ghana, Portugal and Mexico...ouch. But back to this draw. Greece would be difficult, a hard defensive team that tends to give Les Bleus lots of trouble, Australia would be interesting but should be a win and Uruguay is always a tough draw. I would see France and the South Americans get through.

England, Serbia, New Zealand and Nigeria: An easy group for the 3 Lions...or would it be? The "all whites" from New Zealand will just be there as if it were the rugby team visiting South Africa that would be interesting to watch! Serbia will give England fits and Nigeria, if they live up to their potential, could surprise. End of the day the 3 Lions and Nigeria move on.

Italy, Denmark, Japan and Chile: A good group for the Italians, lots of teams that will win on organization and high work rate. But the Italians are the master at organization, so they will cruise through on 3 boring defensive matches! Second place will go to the Danes, too much footballing savvy for the other two nations. Italy and Denmark through.

Germany, Slovakia, South Korea and Cameroon: An interesting group. The South Koreans lost their semi finals in 2002 to the Germans. Cameroon has surprised in prior tournaments - Italy 1990 anyone? However we all know that Germany get past the group well Cameroon.

South Africa, Switzerland, Honduras and Algeria: Um if this group did come to fruition, I would not be surprised to see a number of articles, blogs, talking heads etc saying the fix was on to ensure the host nation go through...none of the teams strike fear into too many footballing nations. South Africa would ride the home crowds through and the Swiss attention to details would see them through as well.

So that gives the following into the knock outs:

South Africa

Fantasy I realize...but it is a fun exercise after eating too much at Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bravo Bordeaux!!!!

Girondins de Bordeaux and Laurent Blanc are making believers of least until I see who they draw for the first round of the knock out stage! However after controlling their group, which included Bayern Munich and Juventus, one has to think that Bordeaux have a good chance of advancing once the knock out starts. Plus, they were without Gourcuff in their 2-0 defeat of Juventus.

Watching the match it was clear that Bordeaux were by no means in awe of their opponents pedigree and trophy case. Rather Bordeaux came out and played the Old Lady as if they were playing a match against Grenoble from Ligue 1. They took their chances, played a smart game and were rewarded on set pieces. Juventus were unlucky not to draw even after a Del Piero cross could not be poked in by either Deco nor Amauri in the 64th minute. Now Bordeaux end top of their group and will be matched against a "weaker" opponent to start the knock out stage - as of the current standings unless they fall on Milan or Inter they should be a slight favorite to get past that stage.

Their current form is a testament to Laurent Blanc's coaching. For the return leg against Juventus he decided to line up a 4-2-3-1...sounds familiar? But he did so to block the Turin club and look to beat them on the counter, as well as make up for the loss of his play maker - Gourcuff. He also has his club believing in themselves, after a timid Champions League run last season, Bordeaux appear to go much deeper this year. I would not be surprised if Blanc is not spoken about for some bigger jobs next summer...maybe even running Les Bleus...

Benitez on the ropes?

Ah poor Liverpool...Rafa seems to be teetering on the edge. No surprise to this blogger. The Spaniard has constantly "underperformed" at the helm of Liverpool. As one of the "Big 4" one would expect more from the Reds. The other members of this elite group have won a Premiership title...Liverpool has not won a league title since 1990, in the mean time hated rival Manchester United has caught up with the Reds at 18 domestic titles (Manchester United has 11 premier titles compared to Liverpool's 0). Couple this with Liverpool crashing out of the Champions League after being seen as an easy favorite to get through their group...oops. Once again I would call Rafa's ability into question. He has built a team that relies on 2 players - Torres and Gerrard. He has spent money like a drunken sailor and has very little to show for it - example - purchase Robbie Keane only to resell him 5 months later at a loss. He went out and spent big on players like Babel ... but where to play him? His side needs strikers yet he lets Voronin out on loan. I have never questioned his ability to manage in a knock out competition, he is a master mind when it comes to prepare his side for a 1 or 2 game match. When it comes to the other aspects of managing a football team, he is lacking.

Liverpool now sits 13 points behind Chelsea out of the Champions League and in general reeling. I would not be surprised if Rafa were not let go by Christmas. Allow another manager to take over the club and leverage the winter transfer window to try and redeem something from this season and prepare for 2010. Rafa will have no one to blame but himself. The Champions League title won in Istanbul gave Rafa an increased runway, which he has wasted. He has not demonstrated a shrewd eye on the transfer market, he has not been able to demonstrate a good sense of how to manage during the long slog of a domestic championship and overall has been given the keys to a high performing car and ruined the gear box, damaged the brake pads and turned it into a lemon.

I have never been a fan of the Spaniard...partial because I felt Houllier was not given a fair shot after having a medical emergency stall his ability to manage his team. He was able to turn around the Red, bring them silverware and apparently was moving the squad in a good direction. Rafa came in on a white horse with a lot of hype...and to me has failed to impress...albeit for a crazy 15 minutes in Turkey...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

World Cup 2010, the next 9 months for Les Bleus.

An interesting blog post from one of the France Football blogs. I think many of the points are well made and hold some truth. The team has played with little perceived passion during the entire qualifying campaign. Should the French manager bear all the responsibility for the poor form for Les Bleus? Yes....a bit harsh...maybe. However let us look at the body of work and why to me, he is the main problem.

As I have stated on many occasions, Domenech does not do well in the following categories - tactics, player selection, game management and intangibles...there might be more...but let us look at each category:

I will start with Tactics because the players one selects and the way one manages a game. Every manager has their style - do they want to have 2 strikers? 4 midfielders? a sweeper? etc etc. However most managers worth their weight are adaptable based on their opponents and players to pull from...Domemech seems oblivious to this concept. Look at Aragones and Spain, they recognized that they had depth and strength in the midfield and adjusted their formations accordingly. They were the class of the Euros by playing a 4-1-4-1 formation. They recognized that Senna could provide the cover for the Iniesta - Xavi axis in the middle with Cesc, Silva and Alonso bolstering the middle and Torres acting as the point of the spear. Clearly Aragones identified that his strength were the Barcelona duo of Iniesta - Xavi with Torres up front and he developed his tactics around these players.

Contrast this to Domenech, he decided to go with a 4-2-3-1 when he had Zizou pulling the strings in the midfield and a healthy Pat Vieira as one of the holding players. Very different now when there is no Zidane and still depth at holding midfield but no one that brings the offensive side that Vieira did. If you did an audit of Les Bleus here is what you would have - lots of holding midfielders, few traditional #10s (When Zizou was playing you also had Micoud and Pires would could slot in at that position), few wingers and depth at striker. But rather than adapt his tactics, Domenech continues to play as if he had Zidane and Vieira and then forces two of his strikers to play deeper as wingers - Henry and Anelka. Having two holding midfield players works...if one of them is a "box to box" player, a player that can carry the ball, make the final pass and score goals...neither Toulalan nor Lass fit this mold. Without a Vieira type, you start getting big spaces between the offense and defense. Without traditional wide player who are accustomed to play in the midfield those gaps only get worse, you do not have players who are used to being wide on the pitch, understand when they need to track back and have a good relationship with the backs that are on their side. Maybe a 4-3-3...get your strength on the pitch - your strikers. Let a Gourcuff play deeper with players such as Malouda, LDiarra, Toulalan, Diaby or ADiarra to shoulder him. This would be especially good when you are playing teams that are going to defend with 10 players behind the ball!! Like Lithuania, Faroe Islands...the inability of Domenech to adapt his tactics to the situation and opponent is concerning.

This leads to Player Selection. France have such a deep pool of players to pick from, yet Domenech seems to have the vision of a gnat when it comes to this. He picks players that are hurt - Ribery, Diaby...he drops players and then picks them up again for no clear reason for the original banishment - Malouda. He banishes players - Mexes, Giuly, Pires, Frey, Landreau and Trezeguet. He keeps calling up players for a "cup of coffee" and then never looks at them again - Savidan (he also has a heart problem so has had to retire) and Rami. He constantly picks players that should not be selected - Govou and Boumsong. Granted I realize that there are 60 million "national team managers" in France, but when it comes to picking the right players, consistently, I think Domenech leaves much to be desired.

Of course his Game awful. I heard an environmentalist on France 2 news making the following statement "He appears afraid to let his players play." I completely AGREE!! He mentioned this in regards to the World Cup finals, when Domenech brought on Trezegol late in the match when clearly the Italians were in trouble. I have called out many games where his management was terrible - qualifier in Israel: Trez gets a red card, France up 1-0 down a man...he brings no one on until it is level - recent game in use a sub to give your players a break and get fresh legs out there - Euro 2008 against Italy after losing Abidal, needing a win...he takes off Nasri for Boumsong - in many friendlies he refuses to bring on players, allow them to test themselves under different situations....he seems to have a stubborn streak to the way he manages his players and the game. Had he been the France manager in 2000 at the Euro finals he would have probably brought on defenders and holding midfielders late in the game when France were chasing the equalizer!

As for the Intangibles...where to start. He is terrible with regards to communication...proposing to your girlfriend on live tv when you just crashed out of the Euros? Being smug with the press in general? How about angering club managers such as Mourinho and Wenger? Not good.

Mourinho "crying" after hearing a Domenech press conference :

Domenech's row with Mourinho stems from how he handled Makelele...which really was terrible. If a player wants to retire, let him, if you want him back use some persuasion and discussion rather than do what Domenech did which is threaten the player if he does not show up. Real good for morale.

Take all these together and you get the picture of a poor manager a bad leader. I know the argument goes as follows: these are high paid athletes who play a game we would all do for free so they should shut up and perform. Problem is the following, with regards to the money they make, yes it is obscene, but they need to be compared with their peers not with normal citizens like me. The fact they make a lot of money compared to me....A LOT MORE...does not mean that they make so much more than their peers that they should feel more pressure to perform. Second to reach their level they have to be incredibly driven and motivated, natural talent only gets you so far. Finally, think about when you worked for a bad boss, a CEO who might micromanage, a boss who might do much behind closed doors, gives you no direction, no motivation, no tangible goals...what does that do? It saps moral and harms performances. Why is that any different from a football team? Whether it is a Ligue 2 squad or the national team. That is the responsibility of the manager. That falls squarely on their shoulders.

Look at the great national team managers - Hiddink, Scolari, Trapattoni, Milutinovic...they lead, they get the most out of average teams as well as the most out of teams loaded with talent and egos. Domenech does neither. And for that the burden falls entirely on his shoulders. Yes he does not make the passes, defend, score, run, kick, dribble...but he leads.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

France v Ireland...Euro 2012 qualifiers??

Okay Okay...the hysteria over the Titi Henry "Hand of Frog" has barely died down, but the pots for the qualifiers for the Euro 2012 are out...and how ironic would it be if Les Bleus were drawn with the Irish...the pots:

Pot 1 Pot 2 Pot 3
Pot 4 Pot 5 Pot 6
Qualifying will be similar to what we just went through for the World Cup - winners of each group go through. The top 8 second place nations go into a home and away play off. A quick look at the Pots:

Pot 1 - no real surprise, the weakest could be Croatia and Russia, which is no walk in the park. Depending on whether or not Hiddink remains with Russia will determine how difficult that nation is to play. However any team with Arshavin is going to be dangerous...a shame he will not be in South Africa next summer. Finally based on their last campaign Les Bleus might not seem as dangerous as the other nations...then again if they have a better manager maybe that will not be the case!

Pot 2 - again no real easy nation, the ones I would fear the most are the Danes, although sometimes they are trick or treat, some years the really punch above their weight and some years they look like Luxembourg. The Czechs will be interesting, they are a nation in transition if they can figure out who they are and which players to lean on, they can be very dangerous. Turkey and Greece are other dangerous nations to face, the Turks were a semi finalist in the last Euro and really underperformed this World Cup qualification campaign. The Greeks are going to only their second world cup and have recaptured some of the mojo that saw them win the Euro in Portugal.

Pot 3 - two of the snubbed nations that lost in the 2nd place play off for the World Cup - Ireland and Bosnia. As well as nations that late in the campaign had legitimate chances to go to South Africa - Bulgaria and North easy nations to face in this pot. Austria and Scotland maybe the weakest, although if Scotland play like last Euro qualifier they will be a handful. I think Austria remains a shell of the former footballing nation that used to be present at major tournaments.

Pot 4 - Slovenia is clearly the nation to avoid, they are heading to South Africa next summer after defeating the Russians in the play offs. They have qualified in the past for Euros so are no push over. Hungary had a respectable qualifying campaign and had a chance late on to head through. The one team I would fear other than Slovenia is Belgium. One must not forget that this nation has had success in major tournaments - 4th place finish in the 1986 World Cup, runners up in the Euros 1980 and they finished 4th in the most recent Olympics and it is safe to assume some of those players will be on the senior side for the Euros. In addition they are not managed by the Dutchman Advocaat.

Pot 5 - Now we get to some of the minnows. The nations I would want to avoid are Iceland and Georgia. The former Soviets have demonstrated they can play spoiler for any nation - look at the result they got against Scotland in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, basically gave France a life line and knocked down the Scots. Iceland is also a difficult nation to play.

Pot 6 - These are the real minnows. Unfortunately for these nations the stand zero chance to be qualified. Securing a draw and not being embarassed are goals they can hope for. Question remains, should they still be included as is? Or should they, like the Champions League, have a preliminary round robin tournament? Maybe have the teams in Pot 5&6 have a home and away play off, the winners will make up Pot 5? I realize that that might take away some revenue since a San Marino will not be able to receive a Spain or Germany, but not sure having France play the Faroe Islands twice accomplishes much.

So the ink has barely dried on the list of teams heading to South Africa for the World Cup...I know the Irish hope it is erasable ink so they can somehow erase the name France and put Ireland in its place! But as is international soccer the next major tournament is being organized. It will be interesting to see how the groups play out.