Monday, October 29, 2012

The EPL, ready for prime time

$250m that is the rumored sum that NBC payed to get 3 years of EPL rights. Yikes. Fox Soccer had paid about $23m. It is a great testament to how much footy and the EPL has grown in the US market. What is exciting, is the power of the NBC networks to broadcast a large number of EPL games. What always frustrated me with Fox was, while they showed many games, at times I felt we were stuck watching Stoke City vs Swansea when we could have been watching Liverpool v Everton or Arsenal v Manchester United...from all reports NBC will be leveraging their wider network to make more games available. As much as their prime time Olympic coverage drove me crazy, I will say that they leveraged their extensive network to make a large number of events available through the likes of MSNBC, NBC, NBCSports and the like. Add to this their streaming options and I think we will enjoy a greater amount of coverage for the EPL.

So what about Fox? The EPL was their crown jewel. Smaller rival GolTV leaned on La Liga, but lost those rights and now really only have the Bundesliga.  BeIN has entered the market with the likes of La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1. Which leaves FoxSoccer with...the Champions League. And that is about it. Which remains a powerful asset, but not one that is broadcast every weekend. On the contrary, those matches are during the week, not really great timing for the US market. This could be a massive blow to the network. Could Fox Soccer go "back to the future?" Before it became Fox Soccer, it covered all types of international sports - especially rugby. Could this be in the cards for the network? Maybe pick up the likes of rugby again, maybe add F1? I could also envisage a bigger play for international matches - World Cup and European Cup qualifiers as well as international friendlies. Regardless of what direction it takes, this is a big loss for Fox.

Of course as fans and consumers of the beautiful game, having more networks means higher quality of service and more options. That is a good thing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Incroyable! Les Bleus pull off a "hold up" and leave Madrid with a point

Wow. I did not expect to see this out of Les Bleus. After Ramos scored and the way Spain were playing, I was ready to turn off the game. But what a swing in the second half. And at the ultimate last minute, France somehow leave Madrid with a 1-1 draw and a point. Unbelievable! The standings after this match:

The Good:
  • The draw. During qualifiers you need to look to draw away from home and win your home games, especially when faced with the defending World Cup champions and two time defending European Cup champions. Add to this the way Spain made you look in the 1/4 finals of the Euros and the fact France leave Spain with a point is huge. France and Spain are atop the group with goals being the difference. If, and that is a big IF for France, both sides hold serve, the group cold be decided when Spain come to Paris in March.
  • Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham #2 keeper was nothing short of phenomenal for France. He was unlucky that his defense abandoned him on the Ramos goal but otherwise was nothing short of spectacular. He kept his nerve on the Cesc penalty kick, saved well on numerous point blank chances and anticipated some Spanish through balls - especially late in the match saving at the feet of Cesc again. Without Lloris France would have been sunk.
  • France's persistence. I will admit I was surprised that the likes of Benzema and Ribery kept running at the Spanish. For once they showed 90 minutes of fire in their bellies and were rewarded for it. In the second half both Ribery and Benzema single handedly carried the attack to the Spanish. Benzema was unfortunate to not be credited with an assist on Menez's goal...which was NOT offside. But in the second half both attackers put the Spanish back line under tremendous pressure.
  • Oh what a goal can do for one's spirit!
  • Deschamps, unlike Blanc during the Euros, kept some modicum of offense in his line up. What was very interesting was how the game tipped in the second half. The French retained the ball more and attacked quickly down the flanks with late runs through the middle. This forced the Spanish fullbacks to sit at home more, play more defensively. In doing so the Spanish attack seemed to lose some steam. What was apparent was that the Spanish were doing a lot of damage early on by holding up the ball in the middle, allowing their fullbacks to make runs from deep and forcing the French to sag deeper and deeper on the pitch. Once those fullbacks were forced to sit in their half, the French began to have greater control of the ball.
  • This pains me to say...but Ramos was a rock for Spain. Not only did he score the goal but he held the Spanish defense together which at times looked completely out of sorts. He made some tough tackles and single-handily corralled Benzema on a few occasions.
  • Giroud...came in late for an injured Benzema, but did what a #9 is suppose to do. Almost latched on to a cross late in the game and did latch on to the last minute cross from the Kaiser to equalize. As someone on Twitter said - Arsenal needs to find someone to cross the ball to him!
Ramos - man of the match for Spain
The Bad:
  • French finishing...I realize that France scored two goals, yes one was not allowed, but it should have been. And France were playing Spain not Georgia, but they had other chances that had to be put away. Other opportunities that needed to be taken - in particular a streaking Sissoko that latched on to a Benzema cross inside the penalty spot and didn't even come close to the goal! Les Bleus still have trouble taking advantage of their chances. This must improve.
  • Deschamps substitutions. Taking Menez off the pitch and introducing Sissoko was a real head scratcher for me. The introduction of Valbuena in place of Gonalons made perfect sense - you were chasing a goal. But in the 68th minute, still chasing that goal, to take out your right winger and insert Sissoko, a holding midfielder was questionable. If you are going to make that move why not bring Capoue, also a holding midfielder, but one with more offensive punch than his TFC teammate. That substitution smacked of a Domenech also called into question some of the players Deschamps selected. Leaving the likes of Nasri, Ben Arfa and Remy at home deprived him of offensive options late in the game. He had plenty of defensive options on his bench. But very few offensive "jokers."
  • Set piece defending...when oh when will Les Bleus learn to defend set pieces! Ramos should have scored off his header, which was completely uncontested, and then was  left unmarked to roof in the cross! This has dogged France for too long now.
The Ugly:
  • The Koscielny challenge was AWFUL. He was fortunate to not have received a straight red...the official probably wanted to spare him the added humiliation! I was convinced his partner Sakho would have committed such a foul, but the Arsenal man completely butchered that situation.
  • Spain's defense in the second half was ugly and leaky. Where it not for Cassillas and Ramos, the Spanish could have easily lost this game in the second half. The chink in the armor seems to be, the ability to pressure the Spanish fullbacks, force them to sit at home on defense. This creates avenues from which to attack wide, there were a number of occasions where Ribery or Evra would push down the flank which would open up lanes for secondary runs to push through. Alonso virtually disappeared the second half - he seemed to be stuck deeper on the field trying to cover for the space that was being opened up. Clearly the Spanish missed their center back tandem of Puyol and Pique.
  • Busquets...and his flopping. If there is one player I cannot stand it is Busquets. Whether playing for Barcelona or Spain...he is the biggest flopper and diver next to Suarez. Every time he goes down it is as if he were shot by a sniper. Nothing compares to his play acting a few seasons ago in the Champions League against Inter, but he drives me nuts. Sad thing is he is a good player and doesn't need such theatrics.
 An unlikely point for France. But one that was well deserved. France really took the game to the Spanish in the second half and had they left Madrid with a 1-0 loss it would have been undeserved. Unlike what happened in the Euros, Deschamps did not stray from his game plan. His team absorbed the Spanish attack for the first 20 - 30 minutes. They really did not allow the Spanish to truly threaten the goal from open play (conceding on a corner). In the second half they started putting more pressure on the Spanish, particularly going after the full backs and forcing the Spanish backs deeper and therefore opening up space in the middle. France were the more dangerous team in the second half. Ribery and Sissoko both having clear scoring chances, until Giroud put his away.

This will be very interesting to see how the return leg goes in Paris. Both sides should have some of their key players back. Can Deschamps replicate this strategy back home?

Allez Les Bleus.

Gonalons given surprise start versus Spain

Deschamps pulls a minor surprise by inserting the Lyon midfielder Gonalons over TFC midfielder Capoue.

Le 11 de départ français :
Lloris – Evra, Sakho, Koscielny, Debuchy – Gonalons, Matuidi, Cabaye – Ribéry, Benzema, Ménez

Sightly greater pressure than his first cap for Gonalons
The remainder of the starters are not a surprise. It will be interesting to see how the young and inexperienced midfield holds up in Madrid against the Spanish midfield. I fear they might be overwhelmed and overrun. There is increased pressure that will fall on the "veteran" of the midfield - Cabaye - to keep the gaps between the defense and attacking players to a minimum. Otherwise I can envisage the inexperienced players - Gonalons and Matuidi dropping deeper for fear of being caught by the Spanish diagonal runs.

I do not have a good feeling about this game. Unlike a similar situation, when France traveled to Bosnia last qualifiers, where Blanc rolled out a muscled and defensive midfield of Diarra, Diaby and M'Vila, this midfield does not have the same characteristic. And they are facing La Roja not the Bosnians!

Nothing like a baptism by fire. If France can emerge without being embarrassed, this might go a long way to building up some of these players.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Can France come back from Madrid with a result? I fear not...

Even the Spanish press is not giving France much of a chance to give Spain much more than a sparing partner come tomorrow's World Cup qualifier. Pointing out that Lloris the French #1 keeper is the #2 for his club, that Benzema and Ribery have not made supporters forget Henry or Trezeguet when it comes to goal scoring, that the central defensive pairing of Kos and Sakho have played next to one another one whole game, that the midfield has been deprived of a number of starters...and the list goes on.

Much will be expected of the two French attackers - can they deliver?
There is much truth in this for Les Bleus. Deschamps heads into this game with more questions than answers. France remains in flux. Benzema seems to be stuck in neutral. Ribery has come to life in the past year, but at times feels like the only French player on the pitch trying to score goals...difficult when the other team knows this. When all one has to do is shut down one player and the offense sputters, that makes the task quit simple. France's right side still seems to be searching for someone to take ownership of it, Menez appears to have an inside track, but has not yet really convinced me.

Without the likes of Diaby, Diarra and Mavuba, Deschamps is going to be leaning on a very inexperienced midfield to counter the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso et al. Scary.

Deschamps seems heading towards lining up a 4-3-3, as he did against Japan (my apologies for no post on that match, I was not able to watch and after seeing the stat line could not bring myself to sit through watching the replay only to watch Les Bleus drop the game!). The back line should look familiar:

Lloris the Tottenham #2 in goal
Evra, Kos, Sakho, Debuchy a the back, it will be interesting to see how Kos and Sakho work together. I am a little nervous with Sakho, he can get in trouble at times when he finds himself chasing the game. With the Spanish tic-tac passing, the PSG defender might find himself late on a few challenges....let us hope that does not cost a card, PK or goal!

The midfield will be very interesting, I expect to see Cabaye, Capoue and Matuidi. I look for Deschamps to ask Capoue and Matuidi to defend first and foremost, Cabaye will be given a bit more free reign to carry the play up the pitch, but I am sure that leash will be short as well.

Up front look for a Ribery - Benzema - Menez front three. Much will be expected of these three to carry all of the offense for Les Bleus. What I fear is that with Spain controlling the possession, you will see a Ribery become increasingly frustrated and drop deeper, same with Benzema and a Menez that disappears for long stretches. Since the PSG winger is not likely to drop deep to either recover the ball nor defend!

France have a major mountain to climb, and unfortunately not all their weapons. Then again Spain are missing their two center backs and will most likely drop Busquets to shoulder Ramos as center backs, maybe the one area France might be able to exploit. In the end there is way too much fire power on the side of La Rojas. I do not see the French midfield nor back line keeping up with the pace and precision of the Spanish Armada. Silva, Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc et al will cause fits all night for the back line of France.

Les Bleus will defend well, but have no serious attacking options. I think the game will be very one sided in terms of possession (typical these days against Spain). The French midfield will hold better than expected, but in the end the French will leak goals.

Prediction - Spain 3: France 0. Brace from Silva, late goal from Pedro.

Allez Les Bleus

Thursday, October 11, 2012

France in a 4-3-3 for Japan friendly...hint of what to expect against La Roja

Deschamps appears to be leaning on a 4-3-3 in the upcoming friendly for France. When Les Bleus take the pitch Friday to face off against Asian side Japan, look for a very muscular midfield trio. The expected line up:

Le onze de l’équipe de France :
Lloris (c) - Debuchy, Koscielny, Sakho, Clichy - Capoue, Matuidi, Sissoko - Ménez, Giroud, Benzema

No real surprise in the back, maybe seeing the Manchester City left back Clichy over the Manchester United left back is a slight surprise. Otherwise Kos will shoulder Sakho, Rami back on the bench.  With Mbiwa suspended for the Spain match, clearly Deschamps wants to work a pairing for the 90 minutes against Japan. Makes one wonder why Deschamps called up Mbiwa to start with...I realize he might want to have him work with the others during the training sessions, but a risk none the less.

The midfield, again is not a real surprise. Deschamps has opted for a very defensive - holding midfield. Sissoko who has not been called up in years is right back in the starting line up. With Capoue and Matuidi, the midfield seems poised to play more of a "destroying" role than creative one. I wonder if Cabaye is given the time off, but we will see him back in the midfield come next Tuesday, probably in the place of either Sissoko or Matuidi.

No wonder you don't aren't even looking at the goal
Up front is a bit of a surprise to me. With Benzema being pushed into the Ribery channel on the left. Last game he was slotted on the right, where he did a decent job. That role is falling back to a more natural right winger - Menez. I doubt we will not see Da Kaiser back on the left when Les Bleus walk out on the pitch in Spain, but it is interesting to see what Deschamps is experimenting with. He is putting out there a true center forward - Giroud. Albeit one that has forgotten his scoring boots in Montpellier. Benzema has had some success being off set to the left at times, with Lyon and at times with Madrid. The Real Madrid man might be asked to drift (not that he really has to be asked) deeper on the pitch, at times even playing a more #10 role to bring some creativity to this formation.

It will be interesting to see who Deschamps gives some time to as the game progresses. I would think we would see Rami at some point, as well as Valbuena. Le Petit Velo might see some time as a more traditional #10 sitting behind Giroud and Benzema. We shall see. An important test for Les Bleus, especially with what awaits them next week.

Prediction - France 1 Japan 0 goal from Giroud.

Allez Les Bleus

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Lass out for France...another Parisian in

Lass Diarra had to withdraw from the French side getting ready to take on Spain in the next round of World Cup qualifiers. An interesting move by Deschamps to call up another PSG player in Chantome. Even more interesting that Nasri, Ben Arfa, M'Vila, Gourcuff, Martin or a number of other options were, apparently, completely off the list. Of course Chantome is a more like for like replacement with Diarra since both are more defensive minded midfield players. But a team already with some many players of this type - I might argue all the midfield players are defensive minded other than Valbuena.

Clearly we should expect that the players selected from the midfield group will be to form a defensive midfield built to stop any offensive creativity from Spain. We shall see. Blanc tried something similar in the Euros and looked lost. I will be interested to see how Deschamps rolls out his formation during training sessions. To me this smells like a 4-3-3 with a very defensive mid-3...

Allez Les Bleus

Friday, October 05, 2012*t just got real. Head to Spain for qualifiers

Deschamps rolled out his list for the upcoming France v Spain World Cup qualifier. There are some very interesting names on the list and those that have been left off -

Landreau, Lloris, Mandanda
Clichy, Debuchy, Evra, Jallet, Koscielny, Rami, Sakho, Yanga-Mbiwa
Cabaye, Capoue, L. Diarra, Gonalons, Matuidi, Sissoko, Valbuena
Benzema, Giroud, Gomis, Ménez, Ribéry.

It is interesting to see Landreau again on the list, is he back to being the #3 keeper for Les Bleus? What happened to Carrasso? I have always felt the #3 keeper spot for a national team should be for a keeper you are grooming for the future. A keeper that can step in if there is a major emergency (how many times has the third string keeper been called on?) but gains experience during training sessions etc. That was what Landreau was doing when he first broke into the Deschamps wasting that spot now?

No major surprises on the defensive call ups. The question will be who starts on the right and left sides? The central pairing should be Rami and Sakho (Mbiwa is suspended). However on the right Debuchy is back, but Jallet has shown some thing last two games. And on the left can Evra hold off his local rival Clichy?

In the midfield there are some surprises when it comes to who remains off the list. No Diaby, no Nasri, no M'Vila ... and the return of Sissoko and Lass! Very interesting in deed. What next, Toulalan? Diaby is not a surprise, he is supposedly not 100%...shocking. No Nasri is interesting, makes one wonder where the creativity in the midfield will come from. M'Vila is playing with the Espoir Selection - amazing that he is that young he can still qualify. Deschamps has selected a very defensive oriented midfield group, with really only Valbuena listed as an offensive midfielder. Smells like he might look to roll out a 3 man defensive minded midfield.

Up front there is no surprise, I think we will see Ribery on the left and Menez on the right or even Benzema on the right supporting Giroud.

The names that have been rolled out might indicate that we will see a 4-3-3 with the midfield 3 being very defensive oriented. Try to slow down the Spanish attack. With the three offensive players tasked to counter. It will be interesting to see how France approach the friendly against Japan before heading to Spain.

Allez les Bleus.