Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year! Deep thoughts on 2009

Happy New Year to everyone, and here is to a joyful and prosperous 2010...start of a new decade! Here are some thoughts on what was a very interesting year, even though there were no major international tournaments (No, the Confed Cup does not count! But it will be discussed).

Player of the year - Well no surprise here, Lionel Messi was clearly the best player on the best club team this year. He scored an impressive 36 goals in all competitions for Barcelona and carried the Catalan club to a treble - La Liga title, Copa del Rey and Champions League - Messi scored goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals as well. Subsequently they went on to win the Europe Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup. The surprise for the year was the fact Messi could not carry over his golden form to the Argentina national team.

Team of the year - Again, no real surprise - Barcelona gets this honor. They were clearly the class of Europe, playing well throughout the Champions League. With the midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta pulling the stings, Yaya Toure the midfield enforcer, Henry on the wings, Eto'o up front, the emergence of Pique as a solid central defender, Alves making deep runs on the wing from his fullback position, Abidal providing deep cover, and the defense anchored by Puyol and Valdes, the team was a well-oiled machine. Guardiola was able to pull all the right strings and managed the side impeccably. Barcelona were a power house the first half of the domestic season, only losing 1 match and drawing 2, amassing an impressive 50 points by the break. They continued their success into the second half marked by an impressive 6-2 victory over hated rival Real Madrid. With 5 titles, and eclipsing of Real Madrid and the best player in the world - much will be expected from the side in 2010. It will be interesting to see if they can live up to a lofty 2009.

Manager of the year
- I could go with a treble for Barca, but instead I am going to give the title to Laurent Blanc. He managed Bordeaux to the French League title as well as the Coupe de la Ligue. He made Gourcuff a valuable playmaker sitting behind the strikers or in a deeper midfield role - transforming him from a French prospect into the key play maker for Bordeaux and Les Bleus. Blanc appears to have the intelligence to manage but also the demeanor - he is comfortable with the press, seems to push the correct buttons with his team and achieves results. No doubt he is a rising star in the managerial world, with whispers of him going to Manchester United or managing the national side.

Match of the year - This was an interesting year for me. There were a few matches that stood out - the Barcelona 6 goal drubbing of Real Madrid was an entertaining match to say the least. France v Ireland in Stade de France will always live in infamy for 2009. However, I will have to say the match of the year was the Spain v USA match in the Confed Cup. The match was historic on a number of levels - Spain had not lost in what felt like forever, they had the likes of Torres, Xavi, Alonso, Cesc, etc on the pitch, they were poised to face Brazil in what many thought would be a World Cup final preview...and it all was dashed by the Americans. The US played exactly the way you need to upset a team such as Spain - play tough defense, trust your keeper, take your chances and enjoy a bit of luck. They almost replicated this in the finals against Brazil, unfortunately the skill and talent of the Samba Boys was too much in the in second half. Much has been hyped about the American chances in next year's World Cup, however I do not think you can go very far in a major tournament playing the underdog style. The US should do well for themselves in South Africa, but hopes need to be tempered.

Overall a good year of football, but 2010 should be even better with the World Cup. Look for my decade recap once the calendars flip to 2010. Happy New Year to all. See you in 2010.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ligue 1 reaches the winter break: Meet the new boss same as the old Boss

Ligue 1 goes into its winter break with the same leader it had to end last season - Bordeaux. Not really a big surprise considering Laurent Blanc's side was able to retain its core prior to starting the new season: in particular ensuring that Chamakh remained with the squad, who was heavily recruited by the North Londoners.

Here are the standings as we head to the winter break:

Clubs Pts J G N P Bp Bc Diff
1 Girondins de Bordeaux 43 19 14 1 4 32 12 +20
2 LOSC Lille Métropole 34 19 10 4 5 37 19 +18
3 Montpellier Hérault SC 33 18 10 3 5 26 21 +5
4 Olympique de Marseille 32 18 9 5 4 30 20 +10
5 AJ Auxerre 32 19 9 5 5 19 15 +4
6 Olympique Lyonnais 30 19 8 6 5 31 26 +5
7 Paris Saint-Germain 29 19 8 5 6 31 18 +13
8 FC Lorient 29 19 8 5 6 29 22 +7
9 Stade Rennais FC 29 19 8 5 6 24 18 +6
10 Valenciennes FC 28 19 8 4 7 30 26 +4
11 AS Monaco FC 27 18 8 3 7 20 22 -2
12 AS Nancy Lorraine 26 19 8 2 9 26 29 -3
13 RC Lens 26 19 7 5 7 19 24 -5
14 Toulouse FC 25 19 7 4 8 19 16 +3
15 FC Sochaux-Montbéliard 25 17 8 1 8 17 21 -4
16 OGC Nice 22 19 6 4 9 20 32 -12
17 Le Mans UC 72 16 19 4 4 11 17 28 -11
18 AS Saint-Etienne 16 19 4 4 11 11 26 -15
19 Boulogne Côte d'Opale 13 18 3 4 11 15 35 -20
20 Grenoble Foot 38 7 19 1 4 14 10 33 -23

Sous réserve d'homologation par la Commisssion d'Organisation des Compétitions de la LFP

1st Half Thoughts:

What is surprising are the two clubs in the other Champions League spots - LOSC and Montpellier. Okay maybe not a huge surprise that LOSC Lille is contending, especially considering their recent run - scoring 23 goals and conceding only 3 in the last 6 matches (all victories). Which included a 4-3 defeat of Olympique Lyonnaise. Armed with the strongest attack in Ligue 1 - 37 goals for, as well as two of the top 3 goal scorers in Ligue 1 - their Ivorian Gervinho leads with 11 goals to his account. Their defense is not too shabby either, backstopped by the former PSG keeper Landreau and the defender Rami, add to this the defensive midfield play of Mavuba and you have a very balanced and dangerous squad. Can Lille make a run at the title, I think so. They have some nice veterans in Frau, Landreau and Rami as well as some up and coming talent in Gervinho and Hazard. They might still be 1 or 2 veteran players away from challenging Bordeaux, but they will not go away quietly in the second half of the season. Montpellier, on the other hand, is a surprise. It would be hard to fathom the freshly promoted side to do much more than fight for their spot in Ligue 1, but instead they have surprised many sides, including a famous victory against Lyon 2-1. I guess I should not be surprised since they were able to come back and draw against PSG in the opening game of the season after going down to 10 men...they have shown this fighting spirit through out the campaign. They are composed of many players you would need to google to know who they are...but they do have some hidden gems like the French U21 player - Karim Ait Fana. I do not think they have enough star power to stay in the lofty position they are currently holding. However if they get to the Europa League the season will be widely successful.

The other surprise, more negative, is the madding inconsistency from the former Champions - Lyon. Granted it is difficult to imagine a club with the level of turn over they have endured over the past seasons - Essein, MDiarra, Abidal, Malouda, Benzema, Ben Afra, Juninho, Fred, Alou Diarra, Coupet and Squillaci to name a few, it is a challenge to maintain a high degree of success. Granted, Lyon are still only 4 points from second place, so nothing to panic about. However, conceding 5 goals to Marseilles, 4 goals to Lille and 4 to Nice is not the sign of a team ready to take back the title from Bordeaux. I think Lyon remains a work in progress. They do have a future star in Pjanic as well as a solid youth in Cissokho and Gonalons and the French #1 keeper in Lloris, so there are some good pieces to build around. However I think they will need 1 to 2 more seasons before they can aspire the the lofty goals of past. Surprisingly I think they have played very well in the Champions League, leading what was a very difficult group only to lose out on the #1 spot on the last day.

Best Match: Speaking of Lyon, my vote goes to the crazy 5-5 match with Marseilles. Of the 10 goals, maybe the last Marseilles goal was "cheap" otherwise all quality strikes, fantastic runs, great individual efforts...just a crazy and fun game...some highlights:

Best Player: There are some good candidates - Gourcuff is having a solid first half guiding Bordeaux to a strong 1st place and second on his team in goals. Gervinho I already mentioned is leading the entire league with 11 goals and helping put LOSC in second place. But for me the best player, the one that is playing well and is the most important for his side is the already mentioned Pjanic. He only has 3 goals for OL, but his overall creative play clearly is what is driving Lyon, I think without him Lyon would find themselves further down the table. He will become and already is one of the most sought after young players from Ligue 1, while I hope he stays with Lyon for many seasons, I cannot imagine how he will not be heavily pursued by the likes of Chelsea, Milan or Manchester United. Too bad France could not convince him to represent Les Bleus...which they attempted to do after he had played for the Luxembourg youth sides and is now a full cap Bosnia international.

Best Manager: I will have to go with Laurent Blanc. Yes an easy pick, but the way he has managed both domestic ties as well as the Champions League...and add into that the constant speculation of whether or not he will be asked to manage Les Bleus or if he will replace SAF at Manchester United...demonstrates that he is a strong manager with a bright future.

So what about the second half? I think much depends on transfer window...and more for what might be leaving than coming in. If Chamakh heads to the Premiership I think that Bordeaux will have a much more difficult time holding on to their spot. If Blanc can hold on to their roster they will be very difficult to catch. If PSG can get healthy - aka Hourau - they will surprise some in the second half. It will be interesting to see if Lille can keep up their form, I think they will. OM have much to prove, they might need to add some veteran talent in the transfer window to bring some consistency.

Second half should be very interesting, but in the end I think the Winter champion will be the league champ.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Domenech needs a chaperon

The pressure on Domenech continues to mount, this time the rumor is that the FFF will give Domenech some adult supervision for the World Cup...a chaperon to go to the ultimate football prom. A week after Guy Chambily called for Domenech to be ousted the spotlight continues to shine on the French manager. Of course the FFF continues to dance around the main issue - no one has faith that Domenech can do much with France in next year's tournament. Had France not been dealt a straight flush of getting a relatively manageable group, the pressure would be even greater to change the jockey. Clearly the rumors are abound around how the FFF will figure out the best way to give Les Bleus a fighting chance in South Africa, while still maintaining that Domenech is their man. Of course there is all kinds of backtracking and counter statements that there will be no management team, that Domenech is a big boy and can go at this alone. I cannot imagine another national team manager with such a high degree of distraction swirling around him, clearly many of the powers that be have lost their faith in Domenech. Once again the complete silence from the majority of his players also speaks volumes about where he stands. If this continues much longer I fear that the trip to South Africa will be as tourists. The FFF needs to understand that the preparation needs to be done with the leadership structure on firm ground and with the public support of the FFF executives. Rather than continue to release statements about how much faith they have in Domenech at the same time trying to find ways to provide Domenech with "support," sack the hapless manager and put in place a real manager that can get this team prepared for South Africa. The excuse that there is not enough time or that Domenech deserves to finish out his contract is hogwash...just look at the business world -- CEOs are let go and new ones brought on without this much debate and they are expected to produce results immediately...not 6 months from now.

Domenech must GO!!!!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

France announce pre World Cup friendlies

Thanks to Memejfr giving us the heads up here is the list of pre-World Cup matches Les Bleus will be playing next summer - China, Tunisia and Costa Rica.

Les Bleus faced the Chinese prior to the last World Cup, the most notable event from that match was the horrific leg break for Cisse, taking him out of the World Cup and allowing Domenech to add Gouvou rather than a certain Anelka...hmmmm, wonder if France had Anelka on the bench if the finals would have turned out differently. I would assume the China match is scheduled to give the squad an average opponent they can get a win from. Costa Rica is from the same region as Mexico and were in a play off with Uruguay for the World a worthy World Cup caliber opponent. Tunisia will be interesting based on the history between the nations. There are plenty of players that play in France or have strong ties to France so they will be motivated to show well. In addition they play in the same region as the last group opponent for France - South Africa (and like that opponent will be playing in front of their home crowd since the match will be in Tunisia). In addition, the way the knock out stages are set up, France could be facing another African nation - Nigeria - in the first round of the knock outs. Les Bleus will be training there as well, an interesting choice of location...I would think that Tignes and its high elevation would be the preferred location (that might be the pre-training area).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Champions League draw - the special one revisits an old haunt

The draw for the last 16 for the Champions League are out -

VfB StuttgartvBarcelona
Bayern MunichvFiorentina
CSKA MoscowvSevilla FC
LyonvReal Madrid
FC PortovArsenal
AC MilanvManchester United

Teams listed first host the first match.

Some very juicy story lines - Benzema and Real Madrid will face his old side Lyon, the Special One gets his old side Chelsea, Golden Balls gets his old side Manchester United...a look at the draw:

Stuttgart v Barcelona - It will be hard for the 2007 champions who will be facing the defending Champions League side of Barcelona. It might a chance for Lehmann to redeem himself after the debacle of the Champions League finals with Arsenal when he saw red early on in the match for an ill-advised take down on Eto'o. I just do not see how the German side can match the offensive punch of Barca. The Catalan side through 4-1 on aggregate.

Olympiakos v Bordeaux - The French champions fell on one of the easier sides for the knock outs, however the Greeks are not to be taken lightly. The Red and White side have always been a force in Greek football and have had some mild success in Europe. Bordeaux will have the pressure of Ligue 1 to push through to the next round. End of day, it will be too much in the side with Gourcuff, Chamakh et al. Bordeaux through 2-0 on aggregate.

Inter v Chelsea - Must have been rigged! How else could you get the Special One versus his former side? This should be a very intriguing tie....on paper. I think that Chelsea have too much fire power while Inter remains a team in a state of flux and a little too long in the tooth. Both sides will be hurt by the African Cup of Nations that would have been played earlier in the year with their main strikers - Drogba and Eto'o representing sides with aspirations of winning the tournament. How Chelsea and Inter manage their squads leading up to the matches will determine which side is fresher, I will put my money on the London side who has more depth and quality. The Bleus get past Inter 3-1 on aggregate.

Bayern v Fiorentina
- The victory over Lyon by the Italian side ensured they would be in group 1 during the draw....too bad they fell on German giant Bayern. Granted this is not your father's Bayern or even Kahn's Bayern. However I think if Ribery comes back at full strength, the German team will surprise many. With Robben and Ribery on the wings there are few teams that can defend with that width and not be under threat from Klose, Toni and Gomez in the middle. Fiorentina will rely heavily on Frey keeping them close, but in the end I think the Bavarians will go through. Bayern Munich 2-Fiorentina 1 on aggregate.

CSKA - Sevilla - Sevilla might be the most dangerous 3rd team from the same federation. With Fabiano and Kanoute up front they are a threat to score at any moment. They play free flowing attacking football, the question is can they handle what will most likely be a cold Moscow in February? I think that gives the Russian side some hope, but in the end I think the class of Sevilla will be too much to handle - Sevilla 4 - CSKA 1 on aggregate.

Lyon v Real Madrid - How painful was that defeat versus Fiorentina...or the fact Liverpool could not hold the Italians to a draw? Now OL must face the galaticos from Madrid. I am sure that Benzema will be very motivated in his return to Gerland. This might have been a very juice fixture a few seasons ago, but now Lyon is a team in transition, still trying to figure out which direction to head in and how to rebuild. Their defense remains shaky - giving up high score lines in domestic play. What will they do against the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka, Raul, Benzema? Real Madrid are too strong. Real Madrid 6 - Lyon 2 on aggregate.

Porto v Arsenal - On paper this should be a walk over for the North Londoners, however they have some serious injury issues, particularly up front. Porto also have some quality in their side such as the former PSG man - Rodriguez as well as the Hulk ... On paper Arsenal should go through, however if they do not figure out their striker problems they might have a more difficult time of it. Arsenal 2 - Porto 1 on aggregate

Milan v Manchester United
- Again another interesting match....had it taken place 3 years ago. Now you have another old Milan side versus an English club with too much talent, but also thin on depth. I am sure Golden Balls will be very motivated heading to Old Trafford, but not sure that the greatest footballer ever can carry this Milan side past the Red Devils. I do not think Milan will be able to stop Rooney from tearing their back line to shreds. Manchester United 5 - Milan 0 on aggregate.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The FFF needs to end the soap opera....sack!

Poor Domenech, he qualifies Les Bleus for their third straight tournament and he collects close to 900,000 Euros for his efforts...which in and of itself is a little ridiculous. However he has another voice in the growing camp that want to see the man sacked from the head of the national team. Guy Chambily a member of the FFF council has called for a vote to remove Domenech. Clearly the support for the astrologically leaning manager has evaporated. While he still enjoys the support of Escalettes, he does not have the support of his nation (supposedly the "sack Domenech" groups on Facebook are at record numbers), minimal support from his players and now is being vocally attacked by a member of the FFF leadership. As I have stated in the past, I am convinced that Domenech is not the right man for the role. Clearly with the growing vocal criticism of the manager from former players, current players, managers and now part of the FFF power structure, there must be some validity to these comments. There remains time for a new manager to mold the squad and prepare for the tournament, with a number of friendlies and a team that has enough veteran leadership. I think the FFF needs to do what we all think is right - sack Domenech.

By ridding the national team of their inept manager, the FFF would give the team a chance to live up to the potential of their squad. I think it would breath some new life into the squad, it would allow players such as Mexes to have a second chance to show their worth and it would rally the support of the nation. I believe that if France turn to someone such as Laurent Blanc to manage, even part time, through the World Cup they will have a much better chance to accomplish something during their visit to the African continent. A new manager would not have too much to change with this squad. I cannot imagine you would move to far away from the players you already have present. What would be better is the style, which I think could be successfully implemented quickly - rather than stubbornly stick to the 4-2-3-1 a more dynamic system could and should be implemented due to the players available for the French. Finally team motivation and a better esprit de corps would emerge in the squad - it could not be any worse!

It would be a bold move, but a move that can lead to positive gains for the FFF. Come on Escalettes make a bold move, you have paid Domenech his give the team a chance. Sack Domenech!!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

World Cup 2010 - Group H

Okay this might be the easiest group for a seeded nation...

Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Spain 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Switzerland 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Honduras 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chile 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Clearly the favorite is the defending European Champion - Espana. I cannot imagine any of the other group nations challenging Spain, maybe Chile if they play the perfect game and catch the Spanish on an off day. But since that game is on the last day it might not matter for the Iberian squad. Hosting a midfield that contains the likes of Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc. Torres and Villa will be very hard to contain by any of these nations. Spain also have one of the best keepers in the world in Cassilas and a strong defense anchored by Puyol (who is a bit long in the tooth but should be fine). So who will challenge for the second spot? The Swiss surprised some by finishing top of their group...granted it was a fairly weak group and only beating the Greeks by a point. The Swiss will be relying on the old reliables such as Frei and Yakin. The Swiss were able to get to the knock out stages in the Germany World Cup and might have a chance to do the same this tournament. Or will they? Honduras finished 3rd in the CONCACAF region. Honduras do have some strong talent on their side such as Suazo who plays for Inter as well as the veteran Pavon to head line the attack. The Hondurans will have to hope to get a result from their first match against Chile, since the second game will be against the European Champions. Depending on how well the strike force will play will determine how far the Central American nation can go. Finally Chile is the one side that some are looking to as a surprise nation. They finished 1 point behind the leaders Brazil. They did score a famous 1-0 victory versus Argentina during the qualifiers. Unlike the squad that went to France 1998, they do not have stars such as Salas and Zamorano to lead the squad. However they clearly have a good system in place and are buying into the their Argentine manager - Bielsa - system. They could surprise and have a legitimate chance to get to the knock out stages. Of course the second place team from this group will most likely face Brazil in the next round...ouch.

Predictions: Spain, Chile, Honduras, Switzerland. Spain are head and shoulders above all the nations in their group. I think that Chile will carry their great qualifier form into the World Cup, they will most likely face Brazil in the first round of the knock out stages, while I do not expect they will beat the Samba Boys, they could give them a more difficult match.
Player to watch: David Villa for Spain. The Valencia star is over shadowed by his Spanish teammates - Torres, Xavi and Iniesta - however he is clearly a consistent scoring threat for Spain, winning the Golden Boot. If he has a similar tournament as he did during the Euros the Spanish will be a heavy favorite to win their first World Cup...