Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Carling Cup - Wenger best chance for silverware...better take it seriously!

The Carling Cup....the competition that Wenger has regularly used to test his youth and really not seen it as a trophy worth winning. That needs to change this season. Rather than rolling out players with numbers like 50 or 40 on the back of their kit, Wenger needs to make players with numbers like 8, 4, 10 or 6 on their kit. I realize the Carling Cup is a distant 3rd when it comes to domestic silverware, well behind the Premiership title and the FA Cup. But it is still a trophy, a real trophy...the Emirates Cup is not a real trophy.

In Arsenal's future?

Arsenal has not won any silverware since Pat Vieira wore the #4 shirt as well as the captain's armband....that is a long time ago, 2005 to be exact. Arsenal beat Manchester United that day in penalty kicks, where the aforementioned Vieira struck home the last kick for the victory. With the likes of Van Persie, Cesc and Clichy being the last remaining players to have enjoy the joy of winning silverware with Arsenal, Wenger must focus on the Carling Cup and the opportunity that is at his finger tips to give this latest generation of Gunners a taste of success. With a 2-0 defeat of Wigan, Arsenal are in the semi finals and are clearly the favorites now that Manchester United were thrashed by West Ham (the other semi finals have Birmingham v Aston Villa and Ipswich v West Brom). Arsenal are favorites versus any of the teams they might face...unless Wenger decides to roll out his B side. I do believe that Wenger is more serious with the Carling Cup this year than in the past, the fact he rolled out Nasri into the game with Arsenal up 2-0 tells me he will want to ensure his side does not squander away the opportunity for a trophy. It will be interesting to see who Arsenal draw in the semi finals, regardless I would like to believe Wenger will maximize his opportunity and will roll out a strong side with more first team options.

Arsenal have a legitimate chance of winning the Premiership this season, start by finding success in the Carling Cup to show this squad what it means to win silverware and to aspire to greater achievements.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

For all of my readers that are in the United States enjoy the holiday and be thankful for all we have. No doubt there are some difficulties we all endure individually and collectively, but we still have much to be thankful for. For all of you that are not enjoying the days off...get back to work....but be thankful as well!

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wenger lashes out again...at the officials

I will admit, not surprising, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wenger. He is my countryman, manages one of my favorite sides and might manage my favorite team PSG! Unfortunately, one aspect of Arsene that always drives me crazy is the fact he seems a little whiny when his side do not get their way. Case in point - the complaints about the 5 man officiating system in place for UEFA Champions League matches. Whether or not Vela was taken down or took a dive the 5 officials are still not fool proof, and sometimes a player's reputation proceeds him. Yet to blame the system for your team's loss seems a bit childish, take your ball and go home. I am not sure what Wenger wants, a 6th official, video, robots to officiate, red flags from the managers to request instant replay??? The system is still a work a progress, no doubt, but let us continue to work and push the idea of more eyes on a pitch to officiate a game but keep in mind that we are still talking about human error. That will never go away no matter how many officials we have watching a game. Maybe Wenger should ask Capello and Lampard whether or not they would have liked a official on the goal line during the World Cup....

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ribery's star continues to fall...might his international career be over as well?

The mercurial French winger was called out by his club coach after a supposed poor effort during a Bayern Munich friendly. Saying that Ribery showed little effort and was lacking in terms of physical preparation, the winger does not seem to be on the path of revitalizing his career any time soon. After the prostitute scandal over the summer, a terrible showing in South Africa both on and off the field and a string of injuries, the once savior for the French national team now appears to fade away into the oblivion of fallen super stars. There is no guarantee that Blanc will look to the former Marseilles any time soon for France.

Injury bug lingers over Ribery for past few seasons
Why? During the Domenech era there was always an issue of how to appease the winger with his insistence on playing on the left - where Henry and Malouda were also making cases for being. Unlike 2006 when Ribery was the "young pup"  on the World Cup squad and accepted his role as the team's right winger, with Malouda on the left and Zizou in the middle, the last two seasons under Domenech, Ribery constantly lobbied to be on the left. This lobbying for selfish reasons, ignoring the betterment of the team hung like a led balloon over the team during the run up to the World Cup. Couple this with what happened in Knysna and his suppose behavior towards Gourcuff and you have a player that has spiraled out of control. Domenech is out and now we have a real manager - Blanc. In addition there are many options for France on the left flank - Malouda, Menez, N'Zogbia to name a few. Blanc will also not tolerate any lobbying to play on the left if it is at the detriment of the team...so will Ribery be back in the set up for Les Bleus? I think that if he is healthy and gets some good run with Bayern Munich he will figure in the set up with France, but clearly the player that was once regarded as the savior for France is not longer a shoe in for Les Bleus.

How fast a player's fortune can change. Up to Ribery to get himself and his game back on track, otherwise he has no one to blame but himself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

France end 2010 on the upswing...the rebirth of a team

Les Bleus ended their 2010 international season with a convincing 2-1 victory over hated rivals England. The score ended up being more flattering that it should have been with a late goal from Crouch on a corner...once again France gives up a goal during a set piece.

Unfortunately I was not able to watch the match...work sometimes gets in the way of Les Bleus. I was able to "watch" it via the feed on the web, unfortunately ESPN3 did not carry the game nor FoxSoccer.tv!! Ugh. So I cannot comment too much on the match in Wembley, although I have pieced together an image of what happened from what has been written, video highlights and my imagination. Rather than give some thoughts on the match...which would not be complete, I want to turn to the whole body of work for 2010 and specifically the Herculean job Blanc has done in 5 games to right the ship that was fast sinking after the South Africa debacle.

First the statistics for Les Blues in 2010:
  • 13 games played
  • 5 victories (4 of which were under Blanc...nice job Domenech)
  • 2 draws
  • 6 defeats
  • 13 goals scored and 13 conceded
6 defeats is unheard of for Les Bleus, this has not happened since the 1930s! Just another indicator of how terrible this year had been for France. Domenech's record: 1 win, 2 draws, 4 defeats...including 2 at the World Cup. Blanc: 4 wins, 2 defeats.

Recap of the games:

3 mars (Saint-Denis, A) : France-Espagne 0-2
26 mai (Lens, A) : France-Costa-Rica 2-1 (Sequeira csc, Valbuena)
30 mai (Rades, A) : Tunisie-France 1-1 (Gallas)
4 juin (Saint-Pierre de la Réunion, A) : France-Chine 0-1
11 juin (Le Cap, CM) : Uruguay-France 0-0
17 juin (Polokwane, CM) : Mexique-France 2-0
22 juin (Bloemfontein, CM) : Afrique du Sud-France 2-1 (Malouda)
11 août (Oslo, A) : Norvège-France 2-1 (Ben Arfa)
3 septembre (Saint-Denis, CE) : France-Biélorussie 0-1
7 septembre (Sarajevo, CE) : Bosnie-France 0-2 (Benzema, Malouda)
9 octobre (Saint-Denis, CE) : France-Roumanie 2-0 (Rémy, Gourcuff)
12 octobre (Metz, CE) : France-Luxembourg 2-0 (Benzema, Gourcuff)
17 novembre (Wembley, A) : Angleterre-France 1-2 (Benzema, Valbuena)

Clearly Les Bleus have ended the season better than they started, much of this is the responsibility of Laurent Blanc and his staff. They have taken over a sinking ship a team in complete turmoil and in a few months put it back on track to where it once was. Granted there remains much work to be done, and the next match in February against Brazil will go a long way to demonstrate how far Blanc has come and how much further he needs to go. So let us look back at the past year, which is much easier to do after that game at Wembley!

The Good:
  • Laurent Blanc - his arrival at the head of the team could not have come at a better time, actually if he had been put in place after the other Domenech debacle - Euro 2008 - France might have done something in South Africa, then again the 2 years Blanc spent at the head of Bordeaux cannot be underestimated. Le President has brought with him a degree of professionalism, pride and an intellectual capability long missing from the national team. His first moves were the signs of a true boss - not selecting any of the World Cup players, clearly sending a signal that he was in charge but also a symbolic sign to those on the squad in South Africa. He clearly has a plan and appears to be following through with his strategy - building from the back forward, developing his core
    Blanc's greatest goal for Les Bleus
    and being flexible in his tactics. He, unlike Domenech, clearly understands the need to develop and allow to develop a central defensive pairing. Coupled with the keeper this is the base from which a team can build out - with Lloris, Blanc already had his pillar in goal. Blanc has also not been shy to experiment with his formations: 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-4-2.  Look at what he did against England, aligning what really amounted to a 4-1-4-1, similar to what Spain did during their successful Euro campaign. Relying on the 20 year old M'Vila to act as the lone holding midfielder and relying on 4 offensive minded players to hold the ball and play defense by not losing the ball...this demonstrated a tactical sense not seen with France in a long time. Blanc has ensured that communications with club managers remains open and two way, just look at how he has been speaking with Mourinho about Benzema. Could you ever envisage Domenech having these discussions with club managers? Domenech was always the exact opposite when it came to dealing with club managers! Blanc's maturity as a manager, gained from his days at Bordeaux, coupled with his gravitas earned from being one of France's all time great central defender, a player who has both a World Cup and European Champions medal have given him the stature required to tackle this daunting task. So far he has demonstrated everything that we have hoped for when he was announced as the next France manager. I hope and have faith that this upward trend for Les Bleus will only continue and grow with Blanc at the helm.
  • The win against England aside, the most important results currently is France sitting atop their group for the European Championship. After a poor start to the campaign - a 1:0 loss in Paris to Belarus - Les Bleus have run off a string of 3 straight victories, including a tough 3 points gained away to Bosnia. Friendlies are nice, except to some like the Gooner, but they do not mean you are getting closer to participating to the real tournaments.  While there remains much work to do for France, getting the full 3 points away to Bosnia as well as maximizing the results at home versus Luxembourg and Romania, the will have a string of winnable matches to restart the qualifiers - Luxembourg, Belarus and Albania being the first 3 matches. Not a walk in the park since all the games will be on the road, however the fact they will not face Bosnia until the last day is an advantage since they still pose the greatest threat to Les Bleus.
  • The emergence of non World Cup players has given Les Bleus a new breadth of fresh air and been a catalyst to the success. Benzema, Nasri, Mexes, Rami, M'Vila and Remy have all played important roles in France's run of success. Blanc's willingness and ability to integrate these players and to use them in specific roles and functions is world's apart from the lack of direction and strategy that was the norm under Domenech. With a crop of young players at the U20 level who are apparently ready to make a jump it will be interesting to see how Blanc will start integrating these players into his plans.
  • The integration between the above players and important elements that were in South Africa - with the likes of Gourcuff, ADiarra, Lloris, Sagna, Clichy, Malouda, Diaby and Valbuena, Blanc has been able to integrate the South African players with the new crop of French players. Blanc has always maintained from day 1 that he would take the best players for the team, regardless of their involvement in the South Africa mutiny - see his comments on Anelka. What will be interesting is what happens with Evra and Ribery, the last two from the South African mutiny that will be eligible for a call up in 2011, more on these two later.
The Bad:
  • The wasted tournament that was the World Cup - I have ranted and raved enough about the ineptitude that Domenech and Escalettes both exhibited over the past few seasons culminating in an embarrassing and disastrous showing at the World Cup, while I do not want to harp on these bad times they definitely fall into that category (you can read all my rantings from the World Cup in the archive - like this posting after France's last match). I can only imagine what might have been had France been managed by a real manager during the past 2 years. No nation with the stature of France should "waste" a tournament, too bad the FFF allowed France to waste away for 2 years under Domenech - he should have been sacked after that putrid showing at the 2008 European Championships...inexcusable.
The Ugly:
  • The image that the French national team has developed during the first half of this year has been awful. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, France had established itself as one of the elite international sides in the world. It did not hurt that they had one of footballs all time greatest players in their ranks - Zidane as well as players such as Vieira, Henry, Trezeguet, Blanc, Desailly and Deschamps to name a few. Oh and wining a World Cup and European Cup was helpful...but since then France has been treading water, yes they have qualified for both the World Cups and European Cups, yes they did make an improbably run in 2006 to the World Cup finals. However they never were able to rebuild a team, rather continue to rely on individuals - Zidane the primary individual.  I realize it is easier said than done to rebuild a squad and not lean on such a player as Zizou, however this reliance and subsequent inability to develop and execute a Plan B became apparent after the 2006 finals and came to a head in 2010. That was very ugly. Unfortunately the cupboard was never bare, it was just that the head chef was completely inept and unqualified to make a grilled cheese sandwich let alone mix these ingredients for something more gourmet. Les Bleus' image has taken a major hit under the Domenech era to the point it became ugly...nothing was more representative of this than the outrage that descended on Les Bleus after the "Hand of Gaul." I have a feeling had France been a more "likable" side the outrage would have remained but not to the degree it was heaped upon the team - especially from its own such as Dugarry and Lizarazu. I have never been shy about who was guilty of allowing this to happen - Domenech and by extension Escalettes for not firing Domenech when he should have - 2008. Sometimes teams need to hit the bottom before they can make their way back to the promise land, I hope that this is the case, because I certainly do not want to think about it being any worse than it was under Domenech!
  • The players comportment during the World Cup - the strike was absolutely ugly and inexcusable. Evra, Gallas, Abidal, Ribery and Anelka all showed themselves as ugly, over paid prima donnas...granted I understand where the frustration came from....see bullet above, but their behavior remains inexcusable and very ugly.
So Les Bleus head into 2011 on a high note and on the upswing. Their manager seems to have at least stopped the bleeding and has brought stability and ability otherwise lacking from the side. There are many positives to look to build upon as Les Bleus will head into 2011 looking to secure passage to the Euros and continue to build that core that Blanc seeks. What is emerging is that France will be led by the likes of Lloris in goal, Mexes - Rami as central defense, M'Vila - ADiarra as the defensive midfielders, Diaby as a potential box to box player, Malouda on the left, Gourcuff - Nasri as the creative tandem and Benzema leading from the front.

There remains questions around who will secure the spots at left and right fullback. On the right it appears to be Sagna's role for now. On the left there is some clear competition between Clichy and Abidal - wonder if Evra will be relegated to 3rd or 4th on the depth chart: Tremoulinas would appear to be the 3rd option at left back. There is also the question of Ribery. As the Kaiser looks to regain his health and form, will he have a role on Blanc's team? Malouda is the clear cut option on the left. And there remain other left sided options - Menez, N'Zogbia and even Kakuta. Would Ribery "allow" himself to slot on the right? Then again Valbuena continues to score points to hold up the right side, Nasri could feature there as could Remy. What about a central role? That would place the Bayern man behind Gourcuff and Nasri...how ironic. While I have no doubt that if the Bayern winger regains his form there is and will be a place for him on the French national team, but his role and stature are no longer what they were 10 months ago when he was seen as the only creative player available for France. Now he is just another piece that could be used for the puzzle.

Amazing what a few wins and time will do for a psyche, this time in July we had seen what we hoped was the bottom of the barrel, in hindsight that is what it was. Today, while there remains much work, it feel as if Les Bleus are back on the upswing. See you in February when we face Brazil in Paris in what should be another stern test for Blanc and Les Bleus.

Final note, this was the last game where France wore the Adidas kit, a kit they have worn since 1972...a great year! When Les Bleus come out of the tunnel to face Brazil on February 9th in the Stade de France they will be kitted out with a new strip from Nike. I am eagerly awaiting what the American sports giant will unveil. I will miss Adidas, but I also recognize the marketing and branding power that is Nike. Let the new adventure start with Nike!

Allez Les Bleus!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Another indicator of why the FIFA World Rankings are rubbish

So the latest FIFA world rankings are out...and Les Bleus have dropped out of the top 20. What? Funny, they have not played a game since the last rankings yet they dropped...huh? I am not saying that France deserve a different ranking but how can you lose spots when you have not played a game! I realize they take into account how other nations have been doing but still...makes no sense.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What formation and who walks out onto the Wembley pitch for France?

Both France and England head into tomorrow's friendly dealing with injuries to their defensive core - Terry and Cole for England and Mexes for France. This might be unfortunate for Blanc and Les Bleus since it would have been a good test for Rami-Mexes to go up against the likes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard et al. Instead Blanc will have to decide which of his center backs he wants to give some time to against England - Sakho would appear to have the club house lead to start tomorrow. The young PSG defender has all the signs of being a great central defender for club and country for many years to come....maybe that club will be Arsenal soon...

Kaboul has been called up for cover but not sure the Tottenham man will get his chance to earn his first French cap in the town he plays his club football. Or could Abidal find himself back at central defense? That would be the irony of ironies. However I think we will see Sakho - Rami pairing in central defense. Other intrigue - who will start on the right and left of the defense? Reveillere scored some points last match when Sagna had to withdraw and Clichy has not cemented his spot on the left side of the defense. Could we see Reveillere on the right and Abidal on the left? Too be determined.

The midfield will also be interesting - diamond formation or 2 holding players with 3 offensive players? If Blanc goes with the former I could see M'Vila or ADiarra as the holding player with Nasri/Valbuena out on the right, Malouda on the left with Gourcuff/Nasri at the top of the diamond. Blanc goes with the former and M'Vila-ADiarra as the holding tandem with a offensive 3 of Malouda - Gourcuff - Nasri.

As for the striker(s) - Benzema will most likely feature and if he has a strike partner look for Hourau to get another chance to start based on his recent club form. Although I could also see Blanc look to Remy to add another element of pace to the French front line, especially with ACole injured.

I think Blanc will go with the 4-2-3-1

Clichy - Sakho - Rami - Sagna
M'Vila - ADiarra
Malouda - Gourcuff - Nasri

Blanc will then insert Reveillere and Abidal as his wide defenders for the second half giving the Arsenal tandem just one half of action. Blanc will look to M'Vila/ADiarra tandem to snuff out any offense and attacks that might come from the likes of Gerrard - Lampard. The question will be can the offensive midfield create the space and offense necessary for Benzema to get his goal chances?

I hope we have a good match, but with this "break" being short I fear that both sides will be cautious - although the English might role out a young and inexperienced side, so they may want to make an impression on Capello so that could give the game a spark.

Prediction -  France 0 England 0

Allez les Bleus

Pires back in the EPL

Former Arsenal winger, Robert Pires, will join the Villans this week after being let go by his Spanish side Villarreal earlier this season. The 37 year old winger is clearly on the down slope of his career but can still bring some veteran leadership to the Birmingham side. After having trained with his former side Arsenal he has found himself a new footballing home. A couple of aspects of this move struck me:
  • Had Wenger not stuck to his - no long term contract for players over 30 policy - could the Gunners have benefited from the veteran French international the past few seasons? I will say yes. I realize that Pires was not the player that Wenger first brought to north London from OM as a 26 year old. Pires became a vital cog in the Arsenal machine and I will contend that had he not injured a knee in 2002 he would have given Les Bleus great cover for Zidane during the World Cup and Les Bleus would have made a run in South Korea/Japan. Having said that, I also think Arsenal would have benefited from having the veteran for the past 4 seasons. Would he have been an uncontested starter? No. But spot starting and being leveraged off the bench would have given Wenger a valuable, trusted and solid option in the midfield.
  • The apparent "snubbing" of the MLS and the Philadelphia Union, is ironic on many levels. First because Pires claims to have turned down the MLS side because the city was not beautiful enough....and now he is going to Birmingham. However who can blame him? Rather than moving to a Tier 2 domestic league (at best) he is heading back to one of the most popular domestic football leagues in the world and playing for a solid team with aspirations for Champions League football and beyond. I realize that players such as Henry and Marquez sought the MLS, but in the case of Titi he clearly wanted to enjoy life in America and specifically New York City. I would doubt that Henry or Marquez made the moves because they wanted to play in a more competitive league than La Liga or the EPL...then again according to Alexi Lalas the MLS would do more than hold their own in the EPL.
I think Houllier will leverage Pires as would have Wenger had he stayed at Arsenal - spot starting duty, option off the bench and selective games off (Carling Cup, early FA Cup games). He will be a welcome return to the EPL, I just wish he had never left.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Blanc makes surprise call up as cover - Kaboul

Will he represent France or Poland?
The one time "next great center back" - Younes Kaboul. Received his first call up for the senior France squad as eventual cover for Mexes. The former Auxerre center back received a lot of attention when he moved across the pond to Tottenham, he was seen as a serious contender to become France's pillar at center back. However a few seasons of up and down success have relegated him to an after thought for Les Bleus. Until recently. After moving to Portsmouth and then back to Tottenham, it appears that Kaboul has slowly found his legs in the EPL. His inclusion is a pleasant surprise and I am sure a well deserved pat on the back for the former Auxerre defender. Clearly his ability to also play right back or in the midfield helps his cause, goal this weekend not withstanding, I would argue that Sagna is far from being the undisputed #1 choice at right back for Les Bleus.

It will be interesting to see how Blanc uses the Tottenham man if at all, but at least he is cycling through the options he has with regards to players available to him. Question becomes - was the Arsenal man Koscielny in the conversation to be called up? I am sure the Polish FA is watching this with interest since he could figure for Polska's national squad if Blanc ignores him for much longer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where have all the French forwards gone?

Henry, Trezeguet, Anelka, Cisse, Saha...an impressive list of strikers. And before you mock the inclusions of Cisse and Saha let us not forget what Saha was doing with Fulham and then Manchester United or the fact that prior to Cisse suffering horrific leg breaks he was one of the most sought after strikers in the world. Some of the goals he scored for Auxerre were absurd and he has lead two domestic leagues as top scorer. What is interesting is that Henry, Trezeguet and Anelka all came up together. The first two making the 1998 World Cup winning squad with the latter being a late cut from the squad.

And since 1998, France have had the luxury of being able to call on this talented pool of strikers. However today it appears Les Bleus have the opposite problem. With the international retirement of both Henry and Anelka, the age of Trezeguet and Saha, and finally the off again on again form from Cisse, Blanc does not appear to have options that Les Bleus otherwise took for granted. Players like Le Tallec, Sinama Pongolle, Aliadiere and Gomis were suppose to provide some fresh blood to the strike force. All have shown some potential but none have come close to the hype.

Even the supposed new golden boy - Benzema - has failed to impress recently struggling at both club and country level to approach the expectations that he established while at Lyon. He is still young - only 22 - so all is not lost. But one has to say that so far he has not lived up to what is clearly enormous potential. It is somewhat disconcerting that your #1 striker is a 10 - 15 minute substitute for his club.

None of the other strikers would be mistaken for Henry or Trezeguet in their prime:
  • Gameiro - nice player with good pace. But not sure he is a world class international level striker.
  • Hoarau - won a Ligue 2 scoring title had a great first season with PSG but has struggled with injuries and form. His recent showings for Les Bleus have been useful, but not top notch.
  • Remy - always compared to Henry, which we should stop doing. A nice player with great pace and good finishing, a real option coming in from a wide position. But again, not sure he has become a top class international striker.
  • Payet - The inform striker in Ligue 1, although he and St Etienne have cooled off recently, another good striker with pace but appears to better fit the late game substitute than a 90 minute striker.
All of these strikers are young - under 26 - and bring different strengths to the table, however none stand out based on form for either club nor country. Interesting that all 4 listed above still play in Ligue 1....

This is what makes international football so interesting, or frustrating to some like Gooner. Unlike at Arsenal or PSG or Real Madrid, you cannot simply go out and acquire players to fill needs, you have to do what you can with the available national talent. Clearly Les Bleus have the opposite problem when it comes to defensive midfielders: M'Vila, ADiarra, LDiarra, Matuidi, Toulalan, Flamini and Mavuba - have all been called upon to hold up the defensive responsibilities for Les Bleus. Clearly a wealth of options. Even left back - Abidal, Evra and Clichy. Or look at Argentina - Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Milito and Aguero were the striker options at the World Cup - ridiculous depth and talent, yet they could not find serviceable right and left fullbacks!

Clearly international sides have to deal with the talent that comes through the ranks and cannot simply purchase for need. France is dealing with this right now, how to replace the likes of Henry and Trezeguet up front. The cupboard is not bare by any stretch but when you no longer have the services of two of Les Bleus' all time scorers, the task is much more daunting. There is some help on the horizon in the likes of Kakuta, Sunu and Griezmann who have all shown great potential for the U19 squad. However players like N'Gog and Obertan will need to step up soon and integrate with the current crop of forwards waiting for the Kakuta generation to fulfill their potential.

A bright future, but still questions remain for the near term.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans day - remember all that we have and how it has been achieved

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the war to end all wars came to an end. The war that lasted 5 years and devastated the European continent and people - close to 40million casualties - was suppose to be the last great war. How could any country or people dare go through such horror again. Alas the globe suffered another, even more deadly conflict in 1939 and we continue to this day to have war and conflicts.

While today is specifically set aside to remember the brave men and women who are serving and have served and sacrificed so that we could live under the blanket of freedom we should always be thankful for their service and efforts.

I dare not think of how things could be were it not for their actions.

Thank you

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blanc provides his list for England match...with another "striking" player from South Africa

For the last France international of the year, next week in Wembley versus England, Laurent Blanc called many of the same players he has leaned on in his rebuilding project....with some exceptions. The return of Eric Abidal is an interesting inclusion. The list:

Gardiens : Hugo Lloris (Lyon), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Cédric Carrasso (Bordeaux)

Défenseurs : Eric Abidal (Barcelone), Gaël Clichy (Arsenal), Bakary Sagna (Arsenal), Philippe Mexès (AS Rome), Adil Rami (Lille), Mamadou Sakho (PSG), Anthony Réveillère (Lyon)

Milieux de terrain : Yohan Cabaye (Lille), Alou Diarra (Bordeaux), Florent Malouda (Chelsea), Yann M’Vila (Rennes), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille), Samir Nasri (Arsenal), Yoann Gourcuff (Lyon)

Attaquants : Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Dimitri Payet (Saint-Etienne), Kévin Gameiro (Lorient), Guillaume Hoarau (PSG), Loïc Rémy (Marseille)

No major surprises in the list. Still no Evra - last game of his FFF suspension - he will be eligible to return for the first match of 2011 against Brazil. Also no Ribery, because he is still recovering from injury. Alou Diarra gets the call even though he has been suspended by Ligue 1 due to his actions towards an official - he had a physical altercation after receiving a red card.  Clearly signals that he has the potential to be one of Blanc's core players. It will be interesting to see if he also retains the captain's arm band.

The biggest surprise is the return of Eric Abidal. While the Barcelona defender avoided disciplinary action based on what transpired in South Africa, he found himself in international football Siberia for the first matches of Blanc's tenure. However there has never been any denying in his talents, the main issue was the way Domenech utilized the defender. Rather than playing him at his natural left back, he was always slotted in central defense by Domenech, a role Abidal was clearly not comfortable with. Blanc has made it clear that he selected the left back...to play left back. Clichy has been the left back of choice recently for France and has done an admirable job, however his performances have not cemented him in that position. With Abidal back in the fold, there will be some competition to take over that role. Evra has not had great performances for Manchester United, however assuming he returns closer to form, he will be back in the mix as well for left back. Add to this Tremoulinas and you have a wealth of options for left back, sometimes having too many choices means you have none! But I trust that Blanc and the play on the field will make clear who will take over the left back role for Les Bleus.

Much will be determined during the practices at Clairfontaine see how Blanc will align his team for next week's match. My guess is the following line up will be rolled out onto the pitch, formation will be a 4-2-3-1:

Clichy - Mexes - Rami - Sagna
M'Vila - ADiarra
Malouda - Nasri - Valbuena

Blanc might go back to the 4-4-2 diamond, take out M'Vila and slot in Gourcuff at the top of the diamond, move Nasri out to the right (similar to his role at Arsenal) and shoulder Benzema with Hourau/Remy and place Valbuena on the substitute bench. Abidal might also be slotted at left back over Clichy, but I think Blanc will lean on many of his Premier League players in his starting line up - Clichy, Sagna, Malouda and Nasri...

It will be an interesting test for Les Bleus. The problem with these friendlies, other than the fact my fellow podcaster Gooner does not like them, is the timing - is that it comes at the end of the international season (a World Cup one at that) and the middle of many tough domestic seasons. Not sure how much the players will have left in their legs as well as in their compete level. The fact it is France v England provides a natural incentive in terms of rivalries.

I hope it is a good game, I hope no one picks up an injury....but I have a feeling we might see a drab 0-0 draw.

Allez les Bleus!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Modest Proposal To Improve The Champions League

Frog and I had a conversation right at the end of our podcast last night about how to improve the Champions League.

Some people might take issue with the idea that the Champions League even needs improving. I'm sympathetic.

During the group stages, there are always a few interesting games. The Final 16 knock-out rounds are incredible. And the final is a fantastic footballing spectacle that they smartly moved to a weekend day so the whole world could more easily enjoy the match. But as the second half of the group stage matches kick off today, none of the big clubs are under any real threat to not make it through. Most of the "minnows" are anchored firmly at the bottom of the table in their respective groups (sorry for the blurry image, click on it for a full-rez version).

Most of the surprise results have come from smaller clubs parking the bus and frustrating the bigger teams. That's fine from a tactics point of view, but it doesn't exactly lead to a dazzling display of football.

So without further ado, here's my proposal:
Have two separate group sections of the Champions League. One for the big boys, one for the "outsiders". 24 big clubs from big countries (see below for full breakdown) play the group rounds for 12 slots between them. Then, secondary clubs from big nations (4th place in England, etc.), and the winners of the lesser domestic leagues fill a second group of 24 that plays for the final 4 Round of 16 knock-out slots. 6 Group winners, plus 2 "Wild Cards" would advance to a knock-out round of 8 to determine the 4 that would join the final 16 bracket.

This would create more games, more excitement, more competition. It would guarantee outsider clubs at least 4 slots in the knock-out stages.

What do you think?

Breakdown of the 2 brackets, all derived from current UEFA Coefficient Rankings
24 Big Clubs: 3 each from England, Spain & Germany, 2 each from Italy, France & Portugal, 1 each from Russia, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Denmark, Belgium and Romania (
24 Outsider Clubs: 4th club from England, Spain, Germany, 3rd club from Italy, France, Portugal, 2nd club from Russia, Holland, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, Belgium
1st club from Scotland, Switzerland, Israel, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, Norway, Sweden, Belarus, Cyprus

Frog & Gooner Football Podcast - Latest Episode Is Live

Gooner here. Just wanted to link to the latest episode of the Frog & Gooner Football Podcast.

You can find the podcast on iTunes as well. We cover the first quarter of the season in the EPL, Ligue 1, Germany and Spain. We make fun of the Scottish Premier League, comparing it unfavorably to the MLS, and discuss Arsenal's goal-keeping situation at length.

Enjoy. And please share your thoughts on the podcast, good, bad or ugly (to borrow Frog's match report format).

Rafa cannot let go...comical

The war of words continues as Rafa Benitez slings more incomprehensible jabs about the man that took over for him at Liverpool - Roy Hodgson. Granted the new Liverpool gaffer has found himself under a certain degree of pressure as the storied club only recently fought itself out of the relegation zone. Hodgson clearly inherited a club laden with failed signings from the Benitez era. Of course Rafa babbles about how he only spent a net 10m pounds and left with 17 internationals on the rosters...but how many new trophies did he add to the Liverpool trophy case with (take away the Champions League miracle)?

Note to Rafa, success at clubs such as Liverpool are measured in the silverware added to the trophy case...not the amount of internationals you have on your roster. What Rafa fails to realize, or admit, is that his tenure at Liverpool was flawed and in reality a failure. During his time he watched hated rival Manchester United equal the Reds in terms of overall league titles, yes he did win a Champions League trophy, but that was due to 15 minutes of insanity versus Milan. He did get a second place finish...but that and $4.00 gets you a latte at Starbucks. Rafa does have a tough task at Inter - following in the footsteps of the Special One and the Inter treble of last season - he has Inter within 4 points of the leader Lazio. Inter is also sits atop Group A in the Champions League and if they win at White Hart Lane, will qualify for the knock out stage. Of course nothing matters unless Inter makes a deep run in the knock out stage.

Meanwhile I am sure Rafa will continue to throw stones at Hodgson, Gillett and Hicks - somehow making everyone but him the reason why he did not succeed at Liverpool. We heard this the past two seasons when he was managing the Reds so why should anything change from the Spaniard???