Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Champions League 1/4 finals surprise surprise

Some interesting story lines are emerging from the Champions League and the first day of 1/4 final matches. First Bayern Munich find a way to come back after an early Rooney strike to find a 2-1 victory.  A little bit of revenge from the 1999 finals where Manchester United pulled back 2 goals in the dying minutes to complete their treble. Granted this is the 1/4 finals and there remains the difficult return leg in Manchester. However if Rooney, who limped off late and was seen on crutches, is not available for the return leg while Bayern might be getting Robben back it might be game over for the Red Devils. Ribery already terrorized the English champions with his runs on the left wing, add a healthy Robben to the right wing and I am not sure Manchester United will be able to pull back the victory. With the two fast wingers, SAF will need to change his midfield allowing for Park and Valencia to assist the wide defenders in containing the Bayern wingers. This might limit the ability for the Red Devils to take advantage of the offensive runs from Evra. Of course Manchester United do have the away goal and are heading home, so they technically sit in the driver's seat, however if Bayern score first and if Rooney is not 100% that advantage is minimal. Throw into this equation the fact Manchester United are playing Chelsea this weekend in what many are touting the match for the league title and the next few days will be difficult for Manchester United to navigate.

The second, all French affair, was not as one sided as the final score would indicate with Lyon securing a 3-1 victory over Bordeaux. The game was wide open with both sides with great opportunities and Lloris making some tremendous saves to keep his team at 1 goal against. Bordeaux had some chances with Gourcuff playing closer to his top level than he has in the past few months. Lyon did show an ability to sustain their game, to constantly attack from any area of the pitch and defend as a block. With Lloris playing the way he is, Lyon have to believe in their ability to get to their first semi finals of the Champions League. This might be a bad omen for Bordeaux who lost to Marseilles this past weekend in the League Cup finals, if they cannot find a way to climb out of the 2 goal hole next week they will drop out of another competition. What started as a very promising week is not looking as positive.

Some highlights:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Arsenal not out of England yet!

Granted it was bad to drop 2 points this weekend while Manchester United and Chelsea thumped their opponents. However the race remains a 3 horse race, why? Look at the upcoming fixtures: Manchester United have to face Chelsea and Man City - both games will be highly charged. Chelsea also have to travel to Liverpool. Throw in Bayern matches for Manchester United and FA Cup for Chelsea - granted Arsenal have a difficult Champions League tie versus Barca. However this adds up to some landmines for the clubs Arsenal are chasing. Add to this mix the injuries that are besetting the Blues and the door remains open for Arsenal to sneak back and take the title. Of course much will be determined this weekend when Chelsea face Manchester United. Arsenal need to hope for a draw (and that the Gunners beat Wolves), that will leave Arsenal 2 points behind Manchester United and 1 behind Chelsea. At worst, Arsenal need to hope for a Chelsea victory, otherwise if Manchester United are 4 points clear they will have to drop two matches and see Arsenal win out for the Gunners to leap frog them.

While the Premiership remains a league of the haves and have nots, at least the race between the haves is an interesting three horse race!

Ivory Coast get their "man"....not really

So rather than getting Hiddink, the Elephants have chosen to head into South Africa with Sven-Goran Eriksson at the helm. Hmmm interesting choice. I guess old coaches never die they just keep getting recycled. Was this the best the Ivory Coast could do? I realize that there is much hype that surrounds the Swede where ever he goes and that he had some success at Lazio. But what has he done internationally? Yes he led England to consecutive quarter finals in the World Cup, but did he really inspire anyone's imagination with those finishes? He had a disastrous campaign with the Mexican national team almost finding a way for El Tri to not qualify out of CONCACAF. Unlike Guus, Sven does not have the same tactical insight nor command the respect of the former Russian boss. With such little time left until the tournament I am not sure what the Ivory Coast was thinking other than grabbing a "head line" manager. There were other managers that would have been better fits - Troussier - who has experience and success managing African
teams (granted he already had one tour of duty with the Elephants). How about another Frenchman - Houllier - who has managed both at the international level as well as with big clubs. What about Bora Milutinovic? Granted he is already managing Iraq, but I am sure the right sum on money would change that...unlike Sven and more like Hiddink, the Serbian manager knows how to get the most out his squads - look at his success with the US in the 1994 World Cup. No doubt he could have come into the Ivory Coast squad and had an immediate positive impact.

Unfortunately the Ivory Coast went with the "safe" pick but one that will not get them any further than had they stuck with their former PSG manager - Halilhodzic. They have a very difficult group to navigate and being able to add the tactical genius of a Hiddink or Milutinovic could have given them the edge to get past the other giants in their group. Alas, not sure Sven has that in his least he is used to being eliminated by Portugal and Brazil....they were the two nations that knocked out his England teams in the last 2 World Cups.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Newcastle's gaff - Zizou "not good enough"

Blackburn also passed on signing Zizou back in the day, because they already had Tim Sherwood...but this is great (Zizou did wear the black and white kit...but the one of Juve not Newcastle!) - from ESPN:

Zidane chased out of Toon
Agents. They talk a lot. Most, if not all, of what they say can be easily disregarded but Barry Silkman served up a dose of self promotion so large it was impossible to ignore when he claimed that he offered Zinedine Zidane to Newcastle United, only to be turned down. The future World Player of the Year proved to be the 'one that got away' from a rueful Bazza when Zizou was looking for a way out of French Ligue 1 side Bordeaux back in the 90's. "I offered him [Zidane] to Newcastle at the beginning of the 1996 season for £1.2 million,'' he said. ''And they watched him and said that he wasn't good enough to play in the First Division which is the Championship now. Three months later he went to Juventus for £1.2 million and two years later he went for £48 million. So I think the people at Newcastle got it slightly wrong." Somebody certainly got it wrong. Could Kevin Keegan really have turned down the chance to sign the French international playmaker and successor to Eric Cantona, who was winning the Premier League title with Manchester United at time, for a mere £1.2 million?

A good chuckle for the weekend. What are your thoughts on some other horrible misses?

France to have club in Champions League semi-finals!!!

Well that is not a difficult prediction since the two Ligue 1 clubs in the Champions League will face one another in the quarter finals - Lyon versus Bordeaux. Fortune since France is guaranteed a club to get to the 1/2 finals, unfortunate that both clubs do not have a chance to both try and make the next round.

The full draw:

2009/10 UEFA Champions League draw
Quarter-finals: 30/31 March & 6/7 April
1: Olympique Lyonnais (FRA) v FC Girondins de Bordeaux (FRA)
2: FC Bayern München (GER) v Manchester United FC (ENG)
3: Arsenal FC (ENG) v FC Barcelona (ESP, holders)
4: FC Internazionale Milano (ITA) v PFC CSKA Moskva (RUS)
Semi-finals: 20/21 & 27/28 April
1: Winner quarter-final 2 v Winner quarter-final 1
2: Winner quarter-final 4 v Winner quarter-final 3
Final: Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid; 20.45CET, Saturday 22 May
Winner semi-final 1 v Winner semi-final 2

The irony for clubs like Barca, Arsenal and Manchester United is that two of the "weaker" clubs are facing one another - Lyon v Bordeaux. I am sure Barca would have rather faced a French club over the North London french club. A quick look at the draw -

Lyon v Bordeaux. Bitter sweet draw for Ligue 1. Lyon has shown a different style in the Champions League as opposed to during domestic play. I think this is a complete toss up, but I am going to side with Laurent Blanc's side. Bordeaux go through.

Manchester United v Bayern Munich: The Red Devils fall upon a club that is starting to pick up their game - with Ribery and Robben back healthy they have the width, creativity and pace that could give Manchester United problems. With the Bavarian giants be able to contain Rooney? That will be the key. The former Everton player is playing at a higher level these days and could simply carry the Devils to the next level. I think that Bayern will exploit the weakness on defense withe the Ribery-Robben duo. Bayern Munich with the upset and head through.

Arsenal v Barcelona: Ouch for the Gunners...a few years back they made a great run to the Champions League finals in Paris only to fall to Barcelona. Granted there is no Lehmann present to pick up a red card and throw the North London club into a difficult situation. Underlying all of this will be Cesc versus his former club. With the rumors that continue to swirl around his going back to Spain whether for Barca or Real this summer, Cesc will be very motivated to carry his current club to the semi-finals. Finally the other story line to follow is that Barca plays the way Arsenal strives to play - quality ball control through a quality midfield and look to hit on surgical passes behind the defense. Unfortunately the Gunners look to Bendtner to finish...Barca have Ibrahimovic to finish or Messi or Henry. I cannot see Arsenal finding a way to score enough goals over 2 matches against the defending Champions League champions. Barcelona go through.

Inter vs CSKA: Ah after a battle with his old club, the Special One draws one of the weaker clubs for his next round. Not to say that the Moscow club is a push over, heading to the Mother Land will be no easy task for Inter. However I think that Inter has too much talent and fire power. Unlike Sevilla, they will understand how to manage a return leg if they  have a lead. Inter gets through.

So we will have:
Bayern v  Bordeaux
Barcelona v Inter

I see a Bayern v Barcelona final with the Catalan giants winning back to back Champions League titles.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Golden Balls out of World Cup

After a non contact injury, where David Beckham tore his Achilles tendon, his chances of heading to South Africa with the English national team are slim to none.  While I have never made it a secret that I think the golden child of football is one of the most overrated players, I also have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his heart.
Beckham can never be accused of not loving the sport and not giving everything he can for his teams. Unlike other international players - such as Paul Scholes - he clearly loves pulling on the Three Lion's kit. Whether or not his chase to be the most capped English player is seem as a gimmick of the Beckham marketing machine or an athlete overstaying his welcome, I do not think one can question the will and desire that Becks has to carry on for his nation.

So what does this mean for the player, England and the Galaxy? First, if Beckham can come back I am sure he will do whatever it takes to return to the pitch as soon as he can. I do not think that Becks will want his career to end on such a note. I think the loss will be more hard felt for the English national team. Why? With all the controversy surrounding John Terry the loss of their former captain and iconic leader will potentially create a void in the dressing room. In addition, Capello's ability to use Becks as a late game veteran substitute made England that much more dangerous. Beckham remains dangerous on dead balls and crosses, something that could have been very useful late in a game. Finally, England's other wingers are not lighting the world on fire currently. As for the Galaxy, I do not think they will feel as much of the impact - their season is only starting to get into the preseason swing of things. Beckham could be back over the summer or early fall and therefore could have an impact on the MLS season.

I feel for Beckham, as the Sports Illustrated article points out, he has worked hard to make himself available and ready to head to South Africa and that has now been placed in serious jeopardy. Let us hope that golden balls makes a swift recovery and can leave the game his way, not on crutches.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Liverpool edge closer to the abyss

Another upset from a French side against one of Europe's heavyweights - as Lille scratch out a 1-0 victory versus the Reds from Liverpool. Now they still have to go to Anfield and find a way to protect this slim lead, however as Lyon demonstrated, the advantage of being an underdog heading away for the second leg all you need is to get a draw and you go through. Lille should also be bolstered by the fact Liverpool have apparently completely imploded - they lost to Wigan in the league and now drop the first leg to Lille. With Torres and Gerrard picking up silly cards the past few games due to acting up versus the referees - clearly there are some issues within the Anfield camp.

The seat under Rafa is getting warmer and warmer by the day.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bravo OL! Lyon knock out Real Madrid in Champions League

The upset of this year's Champions League - Lyon go to the Santiago Bernabeu get the draw and move on to the 1/4 finals. I did not think that Lyon would be able to repeat what they did at home to Real, I tip my hat to the Gones. As has been already written and said, it was really a game of two halves. After Ronaldo scored within the first 10 minutes, I feared that the flood gates would open that the second goal was not far behind. The second goal wasn't far behind, except Higuain inexplicably hit the post after he had beaten Lloris and had a wide open goal to shoot at. Higuain also had a chance to add a second when his shot was deftly saved by Lloris but had the Argentine squared the ball in the box to Ronaldo the Portuguese playmaker would have had a simple tap in.

Real would not have any better chances after squandering those two Higuain opportunities. At the restart Puel made some tactically wise moves that turned the game in the second half - bringing in Kallstrom and Gonalons for Boumsong and Makoun. He slotted Toulalan back as a central back allowing Gonalons to take over the holding role. The game completely changed with Lyon taking the initiative and Real starting to doubt themselves. It was only a matter of time but the Pjanic goal was well deserved. The goal started with a long clearance from Lloris and exemplified by a Real defense that was not aggressive enough in attacking the ball allowing it to drop to Lopez at the penalty dot who coolly dropped it for an on rushing Pjanic who made no mistake with his finishing. 

With less than a 1/4 hour left Real were defeated, they knew they would need 2 goals to go through due to the away goal rules. Clearly they were aware of their fate and nothing exemplified their frustration more than Raul's blow up at Cris late in the game. Of course Lyon could have completely iced the game away had they not missed two 1v1 situations with Casillas late on, both times inexplicably putting the ball wide or high, not even forcing the Spain #1 into a save.

So Lyon will move on to the next round, Real's dream of going for title #10 at home (the finals of the Champions League are in Madrid) have been squashed. Of course the long knives are out as many are questioning Pellegrini and whether or not he will survive at Real. First I think that the Real manager will be shown the door this summer, with the likes of Rafa and the Special One looked at to take over the reigns. Second, unfortunately I do not think it is the manager's fault. Once again Real went out and spent like drunken sailors - spending a quarter billion euros on players - and with that spend thought the 10th Champions League title was theirs for the taking.  I guess not. Unfortunately for Real fans, I am not sure the money was spent wisely. Yes they acquired 2 of the top players in the world - Kaka and Ronaldo. They bought the best French player in Ligue 1 - Benzema. But did they have a plan for how they were going to play this year? Not sure. Why pay for Benzema when you already have Higuian up front? I am not sure you need both Kaka and Ronaldo, they both play some what similar styles, granted Ronaldo is a traditional winger, but they both like to dictate the pace of the game. 

Real will challenge Barca for the League title, no doubt. But they ultimate prize - the Champions League - is no longer a possibility. For this Pellegrini will lose his job and the managerial merry go round at the Bernabeu will start again this summer. My early odds - The Special One 4:1, Rafa 9:1, Wenger 14:1, Domenech 2b:1.....

One more note from the match - slotting Toulalan along side Cris was fantastic. I really believe that Toulalan would make a good center back. He has unlimited amounts of energy always running and working...the problem is when he is in the midfield sometimes that running is done just for the sake of running - chasing shadows. However if you slot him at center back, the position forces him to be more disciplined. He can still leverage his pace and energy as well as his strong defensive understanding. The one down side is he is not the largest player in terms of height. But something to ponder for Les Blues.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bendtner remembers he is a striker as Arsenal cruise past Porto

I guess the Great Dane took the past few days to remember what his purpose is on the football pitch and lights up Porto with a hat trick. Arsenal put any questions to rest with a convincing 5-0 victory and did this without Cesc. Before we get ahead of ourselves the hard work is only beginning for the Gunners. They have passed this round on a regular basis, question is do they have the depth to make another run at the finals?

I still remain skeptical. Bendtner's hat trick aside I still question Arsenal's ability to consistently score goals from their striker position. I am also not sure that they will remain healthy for the long haul, especially since they are in a legitimate race for the Premiership title. Much will depend on the draw, I am sure that Wenger is rooting for Lyon to find a way to knock off Real Madrid and hope that Inter can hold their lead versus the Blues and that somehow his former keeper Lehmann can find a way to get Stuggart over Barca. This would knock out a number of the teams that would give Arsenal fits.

Lots of work to do Gonners! But a good step. Then again if Nasri can keep giving these performances they have a chance! And hopefully Domenech saw the game and realizes that Nasri should be playing on the right side for Les Bleus!!!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Poor Rafa...Liverpool slips further away from the top 4

I am remiss in commenting on my friend Rafa and his band of merry men and their stunning game this week. A 1-0 loss to Wigan drops the Reds further down the table and farther away from Champions League football next season. Then again I am sure the Spaniard wouldn't care since he will most likely be in Torino managing the "Old Lady." Of course now Rafa is lashing out at his players, maybe it is because they have tuned him out and his litany of excuses. I have no love lost for the man, I think he is a very overrated manager, great for knock out competitions but cannot manage a club for the long haul, makes terrible decisions in the transfer market and overall does not seem to get how to run a club. I do have a chuckle that he is doing this with a storied franchise such as Liverpool but I am also shocked he has been allowed to do so for so long.

With Liverpool further away from Champions League football and money, I wonder if we will see a small fire sale this summer since the ownership is also under financial pressure...that would be interesting. Maybe Mascherano and Torres can find their ways to the Emirates!

Come on FIFA, wake up to the 21st century - rejection of video replay is ludicrious

Sigh, is it really a surprise that the governing body of football has decided to not continue pursuing the possible usage of goal line technologies during okay. Why? I guess the FIFA seems content to "continue to accept such errors." Again....why? I agree that the human element is a part of footie and of all sports. The men and women that are responsible for enforcing the laws of the game on the field of play are just as much a part of the competition as do the players and managers. Granted, you do not want games to revolve around referee's decisions or lack of decisions,
however the human element is a crucial part of the match. Their judgment is part of a match - did a player dive or get brought down? Was that a 50 - 50 challenge or did the defender hack down the player? The list goes on.
I have stated that I think the addition of another referee on the pitch would vastly improve the quality of games. I still think FIFA should consider adding another pair of eyes on the pitch. This does not mean they cannot also have video for goal line questions. Why is this so difficult for FIFA? Do they fear the time that might be taken to review? A
reasonable concern...however the number of times you would need the video during a season you could probably count on 1 hand for an entire season. Let us look at a parallel - the NHL. They have a dedicated video judge to review goals that are in question...anyone that watches NHL games can probably count on 1 hand how many times in a season they have seen this enacted. So for footie, that has a much lower goals per game than hockey you would have that many fewer situations. What about rugby, they use video for tries as well...and clearly it works well and is not a huge issue with regards to the time increase for the matches. 

FIFA needs to get its collective heads out of their rear ends and wake up to the 21st century. Video would have rectified the "Hand of Frog" or the terrible blunder Roy Carroll made for Manchester United....or maybe the phantom goal in 1966 might have been overturned. Isn't the ability to correct these problems more important than having to "accept such errors?"

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Landycakes...stepping up his game...there I said it

Anyone who has read my blog or knows me, knows exactly how I feel about the American "star." I have always contended that Donovan was too soft to play above the MLS - see his failed attempts to play in Germany as well as his numerous times  he has disappeared on the biggest world stage - the World Cup. Granted he scored a nice goal in the Confederation Cup finals against Brazil but was completely a non factor in the second half. However, I go....Donovan has been successful in his first stint in the Premiership. He has been a valuable asset to the Toffies. There I said it. Landycakes has played well and needs to stay with Everton and not head back to the Galaxy. Why has Landycakes been more successful? A few reasons:
  • Everton has been using him properly allowing him to be successful. Unlike playing for the Galaxy or the United
    States, rather than being the striker or sitting right behind the high striker, he has been used on the right side. As a pure winger his responsibilities are primarily to give the team width and use his pace to destabilize the opponents. One thing Landycakes has, even I will admit, is pace. Without the burden of feeling he needs to score bags of goals or be the primary offensive threat, Donovan has been able to leverage the tools he has to the maximum of their potential.
  • It is a World Cup year - Landycakes knows what is around the corner. If the US have any hope to progress this tournament he will have to play well and being able to play every week against some of the best competition in the world, broadcast around the world must have lite a fire under him.
  • Do not discount playing with the circus that is Goldenballs. The fact that David Beckham has been on the Galaxy for the past few seasons with all the distractions and hype the surrounds the "greatest" footie player ever has given him a different perspective. No longer was he the man on his own team and regardless of their relationship, I have no doubt that Goldenballs has given Landycakes some insight into playing in leagues such as the Premiership.
  • Donovan is older and wiser. After 2 unsuccessful stints in the Bundesliga, I am sure that Donovan has suffered and learned from the battle scars he has gained from those experiences.
Having said all this I think that Donovan needs to stay with Everton, at least until the end of the season. Heading back to the Galaxy for their pre-season and start of the MLS will not help him prepare for the World Cup and beyond. I realize that Arena wants one of his better players back, however the MLS and US Soccer need to realize that for the betterment of Landycakes, the MLS and US Soccer they need to let him stay in England.

There you go Landycakes...I have sang your praises. Now don't go back to your old form...and please work on your finishing -

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Club football back at it after brief international break

Ah no rest for the wicked in the world of footie, then you wonder why some players get to the major summer tournaments slightly tired! What looks like a 3 horse race continues to hold our attention in England with Arsenal and Manchester United winning today keeping the pressure on the Blues. The Red Devils did struggle to find the winner versus Wolves, but did the necessary while Arsenal won a convincing 3 -1 victory versus Burnley. Chelsea still have a game in hand but the title race is clearly very close.

What is a shame is the fact Arsenal could not get better results versus the two clubs they are chasing - Chelsea and Manchester United - had they been able to get some points from these 4 matches they would be the ones sitting atop the league...alas. For once the Gunners are beating the teams they should but unfortunately they are not finding success against the other big clubs. This is what will cost them the title this season.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A note to Escalette - look at the Ivory Coast

Sigh, I wish the Ivory Coast FA could be switched with Escalettes and the FFF powers that be...clearly the Elephants understand the importance of the man managing the team and are willing to make difficult decisions to give their squad a fighting chance at the World Cup. As they close in on the Dutch Master, I can only sit back and dream that the FFF would make a similar move.

Petit said it best - Domenech is in denial

Great piece posted on L' from Manu Petit about the current state of Les Bleus (in french). Here are the highlights:

  • The players are "hiding" because they lack in confidence when they play for France.
  • Les Bleus do not demonstrate an ability to control their game nor their destiny.
  • This is a result of not having any confidence in themselves, doubting themselves and an overall lack of direction.
  • A lack of mental strength and overall self belief is clearly present amongst the players.
  • Players are constantly played out of their comfort zone - Ribery on the right, Gourcuff too high...
  • No attack or defense as a team but rather as individuals: dumping the ball off to the likes of Anelka and Ribery to simply wait and watch them take on the opposing defense alone.
  • This has been a malaise suffered by the side for a few years now...and cannot be written off to the players having not been on the pitch or the practice ground together - since many have been together with Les Bleus for a few years.
  • And an inability as of late of being able to take on and beat the big nations - Argentina and Spain.
However the best is what Manu closes with - the fact that when he hears Domenech's post match discourse it reminds him of an addict that cannot admit he has a problem and constantly claims all is fine. I could not agree with you more Manu. I have a feeling the majority of the other fans out there would also agree with your statements...too bad Escalettes is not one of those, maybe he needs to check into a rehab clinic as well.

The Domenech debacle continues....can we please end this nightmare?

So after a restless night pondering what we witnessed yesterday at the Stade de France, something else that bothered me from the match yesterday that I have read on other blogs - why call up players and not play them???? Looking at the first half "high lights" makes one wonder why not play the new call ups...

Dumbenech, rightfully so, called up the likes of Ben Arfa, Rami, Cheyrou to name a few. However rather than play any of them in the second half he sticks with his usual - Govou comes in for the right side and Malouda on the left. Hmmmm, you are down 2-0 at half time of a friendly, it cannot get much worse that what was demonstrated in the first 45 minutes maybe use the second half to get your call ups a run. How about this for an idea -

Take out Toulalan who had a bad game - lots of running yes, but chasing the Spanish shadows - bring in Cheyrou in his place. It would be nice to see the natural left footed player see what he can bring. He plays a deep lying role and can link the offense to the defense but he is also more of an offensive presence than the Lyon man. Remove Henry
who was also not covering  himself in glory and slot Ribery on the left, bring in Ben Arfa and have him hold up the right channel. This would give you 2 legitimate creative offensive players on the wings. You can then allow Gourcuff to drop deeper to get some separation from the blanketing Spanish defense. Let Anelka get some time with this formation but then, as he did but too late, bring in Cisse to add a new dimension to the offense. Finally take out Escude, who had a terrible first half, and allow Rami to get some run with Ciani in the center of the defense. Again not to beat a man while he is down, but I fear that Escude has done nothing the past few games but put into question whether or not he deserves a plane ticket to South me that is a resounding no. Reading some of the player rankings, I am not alone in some of these thoughts.

France will have 3 more matches prior to the start of the World Cup - however those matches will have the 23 players that will be on the plane to the World Cup - so they are tune ups and not games to determine who makes the roster. The fact Domenech does not see this game as a bad omen is a bit concerning. I am sure he has to say the "right" things for the press. However the fact he demonstrates ZERO sense of urgency or concern is very disconcerting. Giving Spain the credit they rightful deserve is fine, but to say you still have time to work things out and that you only lost because of 2 mistakes demonstrates a slipping grasp of the reality of the situation. It might not hurt to call out some of your players - Henry, Gourcuff, Toulalan, Escude - they are professionals and need to have a fire lit under their behinds if France has any aspirations this summer.

Unfortunately Domenech continues to demonstrate a complete lack of ability to provide strategic vision, tactical insight or simple motivation to this side. I am beginning to question whether or not Les Bleus will even emerge from their group...a fear that others have also pointed out.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

France v Spain....the haves and the have nots. Guess who the haves are.

Well at least this game did not count for anything more than pride...and clearly the French pride took a major hit today. Les Bleus dropped the match 2-0 and it could have been much worse.

The Good:
  • Spain was very very very good. What else can you say? Playing with 5 midfielders and a solo striker, the Spanish controlled the pace of the game and once they pounced on the French with a David Silva goal in the 21st minute everything feel into their hands (telling that the beginning of the action saw Henry lose the ball to his Barca teammate Iniesta who surgically found Villa). They could simply use their constant movement and precise passing to keep the ball away from France and therefore eliminate any danger to Cassilas.  Fabregas, Villa, Ramos, Puyol, and the rest all showed their class all over the pitch in both defending, passing, and controlling the pace of the match. The second goal was a result of this ability, they caught France completely flat footed on their back line allowing Ramos to make the turnstile - Escude - look like a stick in mud to coolly finish the action with a goal. Spain managed their second half with ease. Being able to bring in Xavi and Senna for Fabregas and Alonso, as well as Torres for Villa demonstrates the absolute frightening depth the Spanish have at their disposal. Well done Espana, you are we deserved European Champions and if you play like this could be finally putting that long sought after star above the badge on your kit.
  • That was Domenech's last game in Stade de France! Assuming a minor miracle does not produce itself this summer and some how France get the 1984 Platini, the 2000 Zidane, the 1998 Desailly-Blanc into their line up, this tournament will end, at best, in the 1/4 finals and with that the end, finally the end of the Domenech era. Since France will not be playing any of their 3 preparation matches in Stade de France we will have seen the last of the astrologer manager on the side lines for France in Paris.
The Bad:
  • As good as Spain was, France was equally BAD. No heart, no semblance of a system, tired players, old players, no creativity and a no real reason to hope was what Les Bleus gave us tonight.
  • The central defense for Les Bleus of Escude and Ciani did nothing to threaten Gallas nor Abidal. I do not want to be overly critical of Ciani, for his first call up and his first start he has to face the #1 ranked nation and defending European Champion, not an easy task. Escude on the other hand once again did nothing to give me hope he is the answer in the center of the French defense. Couple this performance with the ones during the qualifying campaign and I am starting to wonder if Boumsong would not be a better choice...that is how bad he looked! Based on his performance for his club, I think Ciani deserves another look. I just don't see the same for Sevilla man...are you telling me that Mexes would have been worse???
  • Where was the French offensive midfield? We can now stop making any comparisons between Gourcuff and Zizou, granted the comparison was really never fair to begin with. I fear that the best game for Gourcuff was away to Romania...where he and Ribery were clearly the offensive class on the pitch, both scoring goals during the match. However since then I have not seen the ability to control the game and be the go-to midfielder that Gourcuff once promised to be. I realize that he has had much more pressure and games heaped onto his shoulders but he needs to be progressing and not regressing on the big stage. He tried to make some creative passes and some 1on1 moves but all seemed to fail...I will give him credit for his attempts, but with so much dependent on the ability of the France #8 to control the pace and rhythm more consistency needs to come from his boots. Not sure Henry works on the left either, he is showing his age and is not a true midfielder. And sticking Ribery on the right does not seem to be a fit either. Frightening that Gouvou actually looked half decent manning the right channel. Maybe Nasri needs to be brought back into the mix, let Ribery move back to the left and stick Henry on the bench or up front.
The Ugly:
  • France's complete apparent lack of system or strategy. What this game showed me was that once again Domenech seems to be completely overwhelmed by the situation, by nations with more talent and by managers that know how to get their teams to dictate the pace and style of play. During the match the commentators made the statement that maybe Gourcuff should be lined up deeper, along side the holding midfielder(s) allowing the French to start their attacks from deeper. Maybe even looking to hit on deep balls...much like what Spain were doing versus the French. After going down 1-0 what did the French do? Nothing. They simply allowed the Spanish to kick the ball around and play keep away. Maybe Les Bleus should have played higher up the pitch, press the Spaniards. Maybe Les Bleus could have shifted to a 4-3-3...slot Gourcuff deeper between Toulalan and Diarra - push Henry and Ribery higher on the wings look for long balls from the back 1/3 of the pitch see if you can catch the Spanish flat footed. Plus this was a maybe take out one of your holding midfielders and bring in another attacking player earlier in the match - such as Ben Arfa, see if his ability to dribble at defenders could de-stabilize the Spanish defensive block. 
  • The age of certain players - specifically Henry. I realize he is France's all time leading goal scorer, but is his time for Les Bleus coming to a rapid end? What about Anelka? I realize this is only 1 game, and both players still have something in the tank, however not sure the French captain in particular should be an undisputed starter.
So what can we say about this match...congratulations to Spain, they look very dangerous indeed.
France have a very steep hill to climb these next 99 days. I fear it may be too steep. I am not sure that the 4-2-3-1 system is what makes sense for France without a player such as Zidane to truly take control of the tempo and pace of the match. Perhaps Les Bleus can look to their counterparts on the pitch today and consider going with a straight across 5 midfield. Look to combine 5 from a Ribery - Nasri - Ben Arfa - Gourcuff - Toulalan - Diarra - Diaby
to make a midfield that can defend, pass, score and give the team the heartbeat it needs. You can rotate Henry - Anelka - Benzema - Gignac up front. With a midfield at 5 you should also be able to alleviate the pressure on the back 4 by being able to hold the ball longer as well as start your attacks from deeper on the pitch. Players such as Ben Arfa, Nasri, Ribery and Gourcuff can themselves score goals so you should be able to make up any deficit in goal scoring by eliminating a striker. This system would also allow you to play a similar style to AS Roma, where you might only have 1 striker but during the flow of the match end up having another 2 to 3 offensive players appear in a goal scoring positions - the danger for the opponent is how do you defend against the threat of a Ribery or Ben Arfa or Nasri pushing higher into a striker position?

Too bad Domenech will most likely stubbornly stick with not only his system but his players. Unlike the Ivory Coast, I do not think the FFF has the will power to sack their manager with 99 days left until the World Cup. Too bad. France needs to forget this game asap....Spain should see this as only another reason to believe they can achieve something this summer.

    Half time - 45 minutes to forget for Les Bleus

    Ouch Ouch Ouch...Les Bleus down 2-0 at the half time against a clearly superior side. Not sure what to say other than France look slow, out of sync and clearly inferior to the defending European Champions. David Villa opened the scoring in the 21st minute after France lost the ball around the midfield and the defense was completely caught flat footed, with an Escude attacking the ball that he clearly would not get, allowing Villa to sneak behind him and run in on Lloris unimpeded (granted Evra was also caught looking at the Valencia man run in alone). Spain was then content to just do what they do best - possess the ball with crisp passing - frustrating the French and not allowing Les Bleus to create any serious scoring chances.

    Of course the half ends with the French once again caught out of place and an Escude completely turned around by Ramos...the Spanish right back...who scores to make it 2-0.

    France look completely flat. The defense is shaky at best, Gourcuff is invisible, Henry looks tired and old, Anelka cannot get any quality service...Diarra and Toulalan are doing a decent job, but that is about it. If Les Bleus play like this in 99 days they will be heading back to France after 3 games.

    France line up as we expected

    Domenech lines up his typical 4-2-3-1 with Toulalan and Diarra as the holding midfielders, Henry - Gourcuff - Ribery as the offensive midfielders. A good comment from Adam who points out that this could resemble a 4-3-3 with Henry-Anelka-Ribery being the up front strikers. A good observation what with these players on the field the formation could easily shift and allow Gourcuff to push deeper between Diarra and Toulalan - playing a similar role that Pirlo plays with Italy - a deep lying play maker.

    Alternatively France could drop to a 4-4-2 with Henry and Anelka as the strikers and Diarra-Toulalan-Gourcuff-Ribery as the midfield. Then again a side with the quality of Spain it might not matter what formation you are playing!

    Allez les bleus

    Tuesday, March 02, 2010

    100 days until South Africa - Hiddink to manage the Elephants?

    We are 100 days before the World Cup kicks off in South Africa. According to most reports, the venues are on pace to be ready for the event, which was always a fear. With a host of friendly matches tomorrow, highlighted by France v Spain, Argentina v Germany, England v Egypt, Holland v USA, Cameron v Italy and a number of other matches much will be made of the results of these games. Of course what can we really draw from tomorrow? Not much. 100 days is an eternity in football - injuries, players losing their mojo, managers being sacked (Ivory Coast has already sacked their Bosian manager Vahid Halilhodzic) - teams that are playing well now or teams that are in struggles now tend to have no bearing of what happens once the tournament begins. However it will be interesting to watch and to start the speculation, let the madness begin. Only 100 days to go!

    Speaking of the Ivory Coast - rumor is that Hiddink is being lined up to take over the squad. He would be an excellent choice for the side. They are a veteran bunch, headlined by Drogba (a player Hiddink would know well from his stint managing Chelsea) but seem to be lacking when it comes to defensive organization. The Elephants do not need to figure out who should showcase for the team or how to develop their players - the side is full of veterans - Drogba, Toure brothers, Eboue, Kalou to name a few - so they are not in need of a manager to develop a team over a qualification. They need a manager that can put the right tactics in place and give this team a reason to believe in itself. 

    Could the Dutch Master be the perfect strategist for this side? Clearly he has a great mind for football - just look at his track record with clubs with much less talent than the Ivory Coast. The Elephants are already in the group of Death - with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. It will be a major battle to get out of this group, however with Hiddink at the head of this group their chances have just take a turn for the better.

    Les Bleus with Ciani in the middle of the defense

    According to reports from Clairefontaine, the Bordeaux center back Ciani will find himself starting tomorrow against Spain in the middle of the French defense. Ciani will apparently shoulder Escude with Sagna and Evra on the wings. The choice of Escude makes sense since Domenech has always favored the Sevilla man, while I am not a huge fan of his, I much rather see him on the pitch rather than Boumsong! The other interesting note - Ribery apparently will start, but on the right side with Henry on the left. Anelka will be the point man with Gignac injured. Interesting that the Bayern man will be placed back on the side he does not favor.

    It will be interesting to see how the defense plays with a central pairing that is raw and untested as well as how will Ribery find his way back into the formation.

    Monday, March 01, 2010

    Thank you Manchester City....the Premier League race tightens up!

    What a difference a weekend can make. The Citizens headed into Stamford Bridge and dominated the Premier League leading Blues winning 4-2, ending the Chelsea home unbeaten streak and putting the entire league race back to a 3 horse competition.

    Manchester City demonstrated no fear of heading into a very hostile environment. Tevez and Bellamy both proved incredibly dangerous to the Chelsea defense. Chelsea also looked rattled after finding themselves down at the start of the second half. Their defense looked very shaky with Terry and Carvalho both being completely turned around by the first Tevez goal. Chelsea fans also thought that Peter Cech was a disaster this season, unfortunately his understudy - Hilario - is not making anyone forget the Czech Republic keeper. Clearly Chelsea miss the presence of Essien. In the past, the Blues could count on Essien and Makelele to hold down the defensive midfield and really provide the glue that kept the team in one piece - allowing players such as Ballack, Lampard, Cole and the likes to play their offensive game without any real focus on their defensive duties. Without these two defensive workhorses, Chelsea has a gaping hole between the back 4 and the offensive players. While this can be overcome for the majority of their matches, against a quality attacking such as the Citizens they end up paying the price.

    The table as it stands:


    The John Terry and Wayne Bridge off field news dominated the pre-game hype, but in the end it was a game between two teams that have followed a similar path. Prior to both teams being taken over by absurdly wealthy owners, they were both good clubs, but clearly second tier in both England and in their own cities. Now both sides are backed by owners with deep pockets and can have rebuilt both sides through outrageous spending on players (ironically one player - Sean Wright Phillips was one of Chelsea's big early acquisition once Abramovich bought the side is now back with his original club who is now also a big spender).

    Manchester City has some top quality scalps this season - Chelsea (twice!) and Arsenal. They also had a spell of dreadful draws which got Hughes sacked. Much like Chelsea with Abramovich, Manchester City is looking to break into the top of the Premiership on the backs of mountains of funds to go out and acquire what ever player they see fit. That strategy has worked for Chelsea - 2 Premier League titles with the Russian billionaire's rubles - and appears to be relatively successful for the Citizens - currently tied with Tottenham for 4th spot in the Premiership.

    What remains to be seen is if Manchester City can sustain this form and truly maintain itself at the top of the table for seasons to come. On the pitch, at least this past weekend, they seemed to clearly make the claim that they do not feel threatened by any of the established big clubs.