Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gold Cup musings...US needs to get to Copa America

So the Gold Cup final was this past weekend, I had wanted to lay down some key strokes and give some thoughts on the finals earlier, but work sometimes gets in the way of my musing. Better late than never! For those of you that did not watch or do not know what the Gold Cup is, a quick recap.

This is the CONCACAF football championships, it is held every 2 years (which minimizes the title in my opinion) and the winner gets to go to the Confederation Cup the following year (assuming the Gold Cup version is held prior to the World Cup). Recently the finals have been another opportunity to see a US v Mexico match and to once again watch the game played on US soil in front of a predominately Mexican crowd! That was the case again this finals edition in Pasadena.

The game itself was actually exciting, the US going up early 2-0 only to concede 4 straight goals. Granted Dempsey smashed a shot off the cross bar when the US was trailing 3-2, had that goal gone in things might have turned out very differently. Both teams also sent most of their A side players - Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Howard et al for the US, Chicharito, Dos Santos, Marquez et al for El Tri. Mexico did expose that the US does a poor job with in game management, remember last Confederation Cup final when the US had a 2-0 lead on the Brazilians? The US continued to play a more wide open game after being up 2-0 and ended up paying for it, as Mexico's speed and offensive talent exploited the space. Eventually finding their way to a 4-2 victory...including a wonder goal from former Barcelona player Dos Santos:

But this post is not about the game itself, but about the value of the Gold Cup. What struck me was the reaction from many of the US players and pundits post game, it was not about the fact they lost a title or lost to hated rival Mexico...but that they cannot go to Brazil next summer for the Confederation Cup. Hmmmm interesting. I do not think I hear the losing team in the Euros say "shucks, we lost the title and now we cannot go to the Confederations Cup." To me this is indicative of what could be holding back the development of US Soccer - regular competitive games.

The reality for the US is that they have graduated, 20 years ago, playing in CONCACAF was good for the US. They had a chance to get to the World Cup, played smaller nations that were more passionate for football but clearly were trailing in regards to resources. When the US qualified for the 1990 edition of the World Cup in Italy, it was the first time in 40 years, they attended the global sporting event...promptly getting trounced losing all 3 games. However since then, the US has qualified for every edition since, and reaching two knock out stages and the 1/4 finals in 2002 (some would argue they outplayed eventual runner-ups Germany in that game and were it not for a missed hand ball might have played a semi final). That is a good run. But if the United States is serious about being a legitimate threat to go deeper and gasp...maybe even win the trophy...they cannot rely on Gold Cup and Confederation Cup as their "competitive" matches. I discount World Cup qualifiers, why? With 3 direct spots to the World Cup and a fourth that goes to play off, are the US and Mexico ever really in jeopardy of not qualifying? As I have posted in the past, the US needs to get out of their comfort zone if they expect to grow, footballing wise.

Unlike the US, Mexico will head to the Copa America in Argentina, and face some serious competition. El Tri will face, Chile, Peru and Uruguay in their group....much more serious than Panama and Jamaica. European nations are never taking a break, with the World Cup and European Cups every other year there is a constant stream of high charged qualifying matches to reach these tournaments. The US must, if it will not rework its World Cup qualification and why would they, find a way to participate in the Copa America on a regular basis. Since 1993 they have only participate in 3 editions...why has Japan participated??? The US must get into this tournament. The US must add another real tournament to their dance card if they want to grow.

Otherwise the US will be stuck lamenting another lose in the Gold Cup finals and not being able to go to the Confederation Cup...but looking forward to World Cup qualifiers versus Turks & Caicos, Bermuda and El Salvador.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hazard to PSG....really? Seriously? Let's take a deep breath and think about this...

Wow...the latest rumor is that PSG is preparing a bid of 31.5m Euros and Erding for the young winger. The very fact that PSG is rumored to be in the chase for the player is exciting, yet I remain cautious. Clearly the new majority owners of PSG are willing to splash the cash around, or at least give that impression. Let us not forget that 31.5m Euros + Erding (valued at 10m Euros) is in the same neighborhood as the rumored 41m Euro transfer fee from Barcelona to Arsenal for Cesc. But I am concerned about a few areas:

  • Where is this money coming from? The true source of Qatar backers is still a bit of a mystery. Are they associated with the royal family or have some of their funds under management? 
  • Is there a long term plan for PSG or are we seeing a mini-Manchester City? Granted MCFC will be playing Champions League next season and won the FA Cup, but let us see how things look in Manchester in 5 seasons.
  • Who is running footballing operations at PSG? With the new ownership in place I am a bit confused as to where the direction is coming. Kombouare remains the manager, but no one believes his tenure will be long. So who is there to make some of the player decisions? Rumor is Hazard was flown to Qatar to meet with the investors...but who was there from PSG sporting side?
Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy this while it lasts, it cannot be any worse than the dysfunctional club I am used to! I do hope that there is a long term plan, a plan that calls for sound sporting and business decisions. While the recent run at Manchester City might excite some, I do not necessarily want to become the next Leeds United, something that might strike ManCity if their investors get bored with their footballing toy! I realize that what happened to Leeds was not exactly the same, but their run to the Champions League semis was followed by undisciplined spending based on expected revenue streams that were not tenable.

So PSG, go get Hazard if you can, that would be a coupe, but promise me that you have a plan and a vision and aren't just buying to make headlines!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Give them credit - PSG's new ownership is not afraid to shake the tree

PSG has been making lots of noise this transfer season, whether through their actions: signing Gameiro and Douchez or the rumors: Benitiz as not like rumor AT ALL. Now PSG is rumored to be sniffing at acquiring the Bulgarian striker Berbatov from Manchester United and now they have approached the #1 transfer target in Ligue 1: Eden Hazard. Wow. Now I am not sure PSG stands a real chance at acquiring the Belgium starlet, especially with the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or even Inter Milan sniffing around the young player. Just the very fact they are looking to explore the option, invite the player to come meet the ownership, gauge what would have to be done to get him. That is promising.

Give the new PSG ownership credit...they are not sitting idly by!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rafa at PSG...please...this must be a bad joke

There are rumors that the former Liverpool and Inter Milan skipper, Rafa Benitez might be in line to manage PSG. Um....okay....haahaaaa...funny. But seriously. I realize that he has won a Champions League and has a certain cache; however, he remains a terrible manager. One who spends like drunken sailor and then says he has no money. I realize he is very good at knock out style management, but what PSG need is manager that will build from within, make some shrewd signings and manage for the long championship season.  I would rather have a manager in the mold of Wenger: sign a number of up and coming youth players, make a few veteran signings and get into the Champions League to fill the coffers. Unlike Wenger, however, I would like some silverware along the way. Rafa is none of these...on the contrary he is of the manager that views high transfer sums as a solution to a poorly performing squad and cannot seem to manage for the duration of the season.

I hope that sane minds prevail in Paris and that we go after a lesser "name" of a manager but one that is more likely to bring success to PSG.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What it means to be a sports fan...

One thing I am is a sports fan...shocking I realize. One thing I have had the privilege during my fan hood has been to see my teams win championships.

Celtics, Red Sox, Steelers, Arsenal and PSG (well neither have won the trophy with the big ears!) Of course I saw my beloved Les Bleus win the Euros in 1984, 2000 and the World Cup in 1998 (plus 2 Confederation Cups!!!).  The one title I have not seen...the Stanley Cup. The last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup was right before I came to this world. Tonight that might all change. This made me ponder what it means to be a fan.

Truth be told I have hesitate to watch too much of the Bruins' run, why? Because they were my first Boston sports team love and also my first heartbreak. The teams with Neely and Bourque that faced off against the Oilers of Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, etc etc were a team that really piqued my interests. But then they let me down, not because of anything they controlled but because they faced arguably one of the greatest hockey teams ever. The last few seasons when I allowed myself to slowly get behind them again...and then kapooowwww - game 7 against the Carolina Whalers and the melt down against the Flyers...ugh. And now we are on the verge of putting those let downs behind us...much like 2004 and the Red Sox erasing the pain from 1986 and 2003...or Les Bleus in 1984 erasing (somewhat) the pain from 1982.

And that is the beauty of sports and what being a fan is all about. In our lives we go through ups and downs, obviously more serious that those associated with a simple game. However sometimes the ability to escape from our real jobs our real problems and lose ourselves into living vicariously through a group of players whether on ice, the pitch, the diamond, the gridiron, the court who take us away and allow us to live a "dream." Albeit for a few hours and albeit in fantasy land. However sometimes the escape to fantasy land is a necessary place for us to go. For that reason I will soak in all of this game 7. A fan never knows when his or her team will be back in the playoffs let alone one game away from winning a title, so one must enjoy it when those opportunities come around.

History is stacked against the Bruins - game 7s for road team does not look good, Luongo looks like Patrick Roy playing at home.....but that is what makes sports so engrossing, no baseball team had come back from 0-3 against their most hated rival. But the Red Sox did in 2004. No way a team comes back on Italy after being down 1-0 with little time on the clock...but France did in 2000. History will be made tonight, I hope it is the black and gold that is the one lifting the cup!

Lets go Bruins. Bring home the Cup tonight!!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

PSG quietly making some strong moves

The transfer season barely opened and PSG already, for once, was aggressive and in the right direction. First they went out and took care of their goalkeeping issue but signing Nicolas Douchez, should finally resolve PSG's long term goalkeeping issues. With Edel being let walk and Coupet retiring, Douchez slots in immediately as the #1...granted had Edel stayed, Douchez would still be the undisputed #1! Maybe Wenger can learn from this move and get himself a true #1 that could be lining up for your club for the next decade.
Good long term option for PSG's GK situation

Not stopping there, PSG made a surprise move and acquired Gameiro from Lorient. Why a surprise? Gameiro was heavily linked with La Liga for 2 seasons and more recently some EPL clubs. The fact PSG was able to swoop in and grab the French striker bodes well for the Parisian club. According to reports, PSG is not done. They have targeted Matuidi from St Etteinne to be their holding midfielder to replace the retiring Makelele. It appears that PSG will get Matuidi as long as they can agree on the price. If PSG stops there, I would say that is already a good transfer season (assuming as well that they hold on to the likes of Sakho). Douchez solves their keeper issues, Gameiro will be an upgrade for the PSG strike force. I do not see Erding sticking around and with Hourau struggling a bit, adding the Ligue 1 scoring leader will be an upgrade.

PSG have also inquired about Gervinho from Lille, but LOSC has stated they will not sell him within Ligue 1. It is not coincidence that this new aggressive tact from PSG coincides with investment from Qatar. With a new infusion of capital, PSG can be more aggressive in the market. However this is not any different from other eras in the PSG history, the difference is this time it feels as if they are making smart investments.

Let us see how much more PSG have to do when it comes to transfers. I would like to see Matuidi as well as another creative presence, maybe his St Ettienne teammate Payet?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Les Bleus and Blanc going witha 4-4-2

No surprise,  Blanc will align a 4-4-2, after announcing that Hourau would be a starter I could not really see him lining up as the lone striker. After his match against Ukraine, Gameiro was given another chance to start this time with a strike partner - Hourau.

The midfield is no surprise with Diarra (I am a bit surprised to see the Bordeaux man back in the starting XI but he did not play against Ukraine so makes sense), Martin, Valbuena and N'Zogbia. Look for N'Zogbia to hold the wide flank on the left with Valbuena doing the same on the right. Martin, after his 15 minutes of insanity, will be given an expected start and will be expected to pull the strings in the midfield. This will place some pressure on Diarra since he is the single "guard" in front of the back 4. Speaking of the back 4, no surprises, except for Sakho sitting and Abidal in central defense. How ironic when that is the exact role he did not want to play under Domenech. Granted Abidal has slotted there for Barcelona when Pujol was injured. With Rami suspended against Albania when the qualifiers start up again, and Mexes coming off injury, Blanc is clearly getting ready for having to leverage Abidal and his experience in central defense.
I see this game being another trial run for Blanc in preparation for the Albania match in September.

Prediction: France 3 – Poland 1, goals from Hourau, Valbuena and Gameiro

Allez les Bleus

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

France v Poland: Welcome to some new faces

No surprise, but Laurent Blanc announced that the players he has not used over the past 2 matches will start for the final friendly before the summer break: Carrasso in goal, N'Zogbia and Valbuena in midfield and Hourau at striker. Question remains who else will start and what formation with Blanc look to leverage?

I have a feeling he will lean on a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. I am not sure he wants to have Hourau as the lone striker so look for the former to be employed. N'Zogbia wide left with Valbuena on the right, the central midfield I could see Martin coupled with Matuidi, M'Vila or maybe even Cabaye. The front two will be Hourau and Gameiro, with the defense similar to the last match. Get Sakho another run out in the center of defense with Kaboul as his partner. Reveillere and Evra holding the wide roles. Finally Carrasso in goal. A more offensive leaning formation, which will place an increased amount of pressure on whomever is the holding midfielder.

It will be interesting to see how Martin does after his coming out party against Ukraine. Let us hope he can build upon his showing.

Allez les Bleus.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

No surprise - third keeper for France v Poland this Thursday

Le President announced that his keeper from Bordeaux will get the nod this Thursday against Poland. Not a big surprise at all; however, after a poor goal given up against Ukraine, I am beginning to question whether or not the hierarchy in goal is written in stone. Mandanda has had a great season for OM, but I feel as if his latest showing for France puts him a bit on shaky ground. What about the likes of Landreau with LOSC? Or Ruffier at Monaco?

Lloris remains the #1 choice but I would not close the door on looking at picking 2 from the 4 keepers: Mandanda, Carrasso, Ruffier and Landreau for the other spots.

Monday, June 06, 2011

After a lackluster 1st half...a 5 goal second. What a debut for Martin

With many of these friendlies, the game between France and Ukraine was an exercise in playing pass around and keep away rather than really trying to get a result...that is until the second half. End of the 90+ minutes and Les Bleus leave the Ukraine with a 4-1 victory, scoring 4 straight goals and might have had more.

The Good:
Could we see both these men in Blue on Thursday?
  • Let us start with the debutant - Marvin Martin - what can you say from a player who entered the game at the 79th minute and had quite the last 10+ minutes of the game. The leading assist man from Ligue 1 showed that he has a good goal scoring touch as well. Hitting a sneaky shot for distance that found is way just inside the inner post and then patiently latched on to a simple square ball from Benzema, and cooly finishing with a strike into the Ukrainian upper 90. Martin also came close to springing Benzema on a wonderfully weighted pass. Before we get ahead of ourselves and start comparing him to Zidane - and the fact Zizou also scored a brace on his debut for France will draw comparisons - we only saw about 12 minutes of Martin. He was also playing against a tired Ukrainian side; however, it is something to build on and it is positive.
  • A true poacher
  • A number of France's other new starters did some good things. Cabaye gave Newcastle fans something to look forward to, he had a high motor and made some strong passes. Matuidi demonstrated an ability to play the midfield "destroyer" role, however at times I felt he was pushing a bit. Kaboul had a quiet, yet solid
    game, his goal was a great show for the Tottenham man, always good when you can get your central defender to be a threat in the air on set pieces. Finally Gameiro showed me something, an ability to turn what appears to be a lost cause near the 18 yard box and turn it into a goal scoring threat. His goal was a great example of a goal poachers goal - he latched onto a loose ball and, without hesitation, struck a thunderbolt into the Ukrainian goal. He had done the same end of the first half, turning what appeared to be a lost ball and forced a strong save from the Ukrainian keeper.
  • Ribery is starting to look like his old self. He was devastating on the left flank when he entered the game, every time the ball game to him he had the chance to spring the Ukraine defense. The last France goal was a direct result of Ribery's high pressure causing the Ukrainian turn over. Let us hope that Der Kaiser has been humbled after last year's world cup and plays the way he did rather than spend time his time being a pain in the team's collect side!
  • 4 Goals...can never complain when you can post 4 goals in any game.
The Bad:
  • The goal against Mandanda was not would think the shot would have been deflected, but on replay it was a simple pile-driver shot that Mandanda misread. Granted the ball did have some nasty movement, but when you are an international keeper you must make that save. Seems like French keepers have problems playing away to the Ukraine...remember Frey's gaff a few years back?
  • Too Bad Les Bleus did not play like this last Friday! It was bad that France found its scoring touch during a friendly and not when the games counted. 
The Ugly:
  • By no means a perfect match, but cannot really identify any truly ugly showing. I might come up with something over the next few days.

After defeating any team 4-1 you cannot leave unhappy.  Blanc will look toward Thursday's game again Poland to close out the season on another upside. I would expect to see the remaining players who have not showcased during the past 2 games - N'Zogbia, Hourau, Valbuena and Carrasso. I have a feeling Blanc will leverage a similar line up as against Ukraine. I do think he will go back to a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-4-2, with Martin pulling the stings, N'Zogbia on the left and either two strikers - Gameiro and Hourau, or the PSG striker alone up front. Valbuena should see time on the right side in either formation.

Will be interesting to see, I hope for another four goal game!

Allez les Bleus.

Equipe de France - starting XI for Ukraine match, no surprises

No surprise from Laurent Blanc and his announced starting XI.

Le onze tricolore :
 Mandanda – Réveillère, Kaboul, Sakho, Evra – Matuidi, Cabaye, M’Vila – Rémy, Gameiro, Ménez

As mentioned in an earlier post, this 4-3-3 could easily evolve into a 4-3-2-1 with Remy and Menez dropping deeper in the park. I could also see Menez dropping behind Remy and Gameiro, acting like a 9 1/2 with Remy playing wide, Gameiro as the high striker and Menez pulling the strings just in front of the midfield 3 and behind the strikers. With this formation, it will be important to see how the wide fullbacks an support and provide offensive width to the team.

With Matuidi, Cabaye and M'Vila patrolling the midfield, I believe we will see a similar game as to the one France had against Bosnia when they rolled out a 4-3-3. The heavily leaning defensive and holding flavor for France's midfield should snuff out much of Ukraine's creativity and offensive space in the middle of the park. Should be an interesting match with regards to tactics and how the newbies play.

Prediction: France 1 Ukraine 0, goal by Menez.

Allez les Bleus!

Les Bleus head to a week of friendlies

So Les Bleus will head into the two matches this week limping into the summer break. After a lackluster 1-1 draw away to Belarus, I will admit I was not able to watch due to travel but I will do so and provide a write up later this week, Les Bleus still sit atop Group D. With a 4 point lead over second place Belarus, and 6 points over Bosnia (the nation most likely to push France, they also have a game in hand so really that is a 3 point lead over Bosnia), France look like their path to the Euros remains on strong footing. Granted Les Bleus still face tricky ties home and away to Albania, away to Romania and home to Bosnia.

With two matches against Euro co-hosts Poland and Ukraine, it will be interesting to see how Blanc plays these matches. Based on his comments we should expect some turn over of his roster allowing fringe players to be granted an opportunity to show what they can do on the pitch as well as giving the starters some much needed time off.

What can we expect from the line ups? I full expect to see the likes of Kaboul, Gameiro, Matuidi, Sakho and Cabaye given every opportunity to show to Le President what they are capable of. Players such as Menez, Remy and M'Vila will also be given time, however there roles with Les Bleus I believe is clear to Blanc. Also look for Mandanda and Carrasso to get time in goal.

For today's game versus the Ukraine, look for the following formation:

Mandanda - Réveillère, Kaboul, Sakho, Evra - Cabaye, M'Vila, Matuidi - Rémy, Gameiro, Menez.

An entirely new defense, it will be interesting to see how Kaboul-Sakho works out in central defense, there remains an open competition for who will be the second pairing after Rami-Mexes. Koscielny will also remain in the wings. If Blanc does go with this 4-3-3 it will be interesting to see how the midfield trio of Cabaye-M'Vila-Matuidi perform: you could consider all three as "box to box" midfielders, high work rates, great engines - question becomes which one assumes a more offensive role? Or will Blanc look to his wide players, Remy and Menez, to drop deeper and provide the offensive link between the back and Gameiro? I could see this formation looking a bit like an old Italina "Christmas Tree" or a 4-3-2-1. Gameiro on the last defender with Menez and Remy dropping deeper when need be, the midfield trio destroying any Ukrainian offense. The wide backs will also look to push up the pitch and provide extra width.

It will be interesting to see, if this is the formation that Blanc goes with today, who will play end of week against Poland. I would not be surprised if we saw Blanc going back to a 4-2-3-1 for that match, looking to roll out N'Zogbia on the left, Martin in the middle and Valbuena on the right, give Gamerio another match at the top of the formation, select two of the three defensive midfielders from the Ukraine match (probably Matuidi and M'Vila) and roll out a similar back line.

Speaking of Matuidi, a nice piece of goal scoring from the ASSE midfielder.

The players are on the verge of a much needed break, I hope we get to see the new faces for Les Bleus, two good matches and no injuries!

Allez les Bleus!!!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Les Bleus sticking with old faithful

Ahead of tomorrows game versus Belarus, it would appear that Laurent Blanc will go with old faithful - the 4-2-3-1. His statements around Cisse shed some insight into his leaning towards using just a single high striker. First the expected starting line up:

Lloris - Sagna, Rami, Sakho, Abidal - A. Diarra, Diaby - Malouda, Nasri, Ribéry - Benzema.

No surprise in goal or at the striker role. What is interesting, and nothing short of amazing is the fact Abidal will be on the pitch. A few months after having surgery he will be taking his post on the left for France. The other surprise is the inclusion of Diaby who missed much of the end of the Arsenal season. With the likes of M'Vila, Matuidi or Cabaye available, it was interesting to see Diaby tapped as a starter. I have never hidden my support for Diaby, but I will admit that he is maddeningly frustrating as a player both due to his constant injury bug as well as his sometimes apparent lack of progress in his game. Like Benzema he seems to have found his stride under Blanc. The other aspect to watch - how will the midfield function with Ribery on the right? The Kaiser has apparently tempered himself when it comes to constantly lobbying to be on the left of the formation. However, based on his past performances, he is clearly better and more dangerous coming off the left wing. With the likes of Menez and Valbuena available, I am a bit surprised that Blanc would force fit Ribery on the right.

Could we see a tactical move in the second half, take off Malouda, slot Ribery back to the left and bring on a fresh right winger - Valbuena or Menez to run at the Belarus defense? Which makes sense, but why not put in a Menez on the right from the get go? Keep Malouda or Ribery on the bench as an option late for the left, gives you more substitution flexibility.

Finally, it will be good to see the PSG center back Sakho get some run.

Blanc might have a last minute twist for us, but the above line up would seem to make sense based on his recent outings.

Allez les Bleus