Monthly Archives: September 2011

Champions League Preview, Part II

THE DANGER TEAMS: 

18. Marseille: Very inconsistent last year, but thoroughly deserved their place in the last 16. Once again, you don’t know what to expect of them on any given day, Ligue 1 or CL, but they should do fairly well in both.

Coach Deschamps has made a few brilliant decisions in his time at Marseille, but they have a very tough group, with three possession-based sides.

17. Valencia: Top coach Unai Emery will have to adjust quickly to life without Mata, but even more pressing are the defensive problems. If he can fix those, Valencia should advance out of Group E, and they are a team which can cause upsets.

16. Lille: The reigning Ligue 1 Champions’ attacking play should thrive in a group featuring Inter, CSKA, and Trabzonspor. Lille’s return to the Champions League will be full of goals and drama, and expect the same in Ligue 1, where they face a huge fight to reclaim the title.

15. Benfica: While their defense may not be the best, Benfica has incredible attack and could beat any team in Europe in one game. They want to prove that Porto isn’t the only Portuguese team that can do damage in Europe, and got a better draw than their rivals.

14. Arsenal: There is no doubt that the Gunners will improve, but this is hardly the type of team that can make a run to the final four. They will be respected, but not feared by opponents. This ranking could end up anywhere between six and eighteen, depending on how much the return from injury of key players helps.

13. Napoli: With the “Golden Triangle” intact, I had high hopes of a deep run into the Champions League by the Azzuri. But they got about as bad a draw as possible, and even finishing ahead of Villarreal is no easy feat. There is good news, though: Both City and Bayern can be inconsistent. Don’t expect their scary current forms to continue for very long, especially on Bayern’s part.

12. Bayer Leverkusen: With one of the best young coaches in Europe, and an easy second-place finish in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen had to be ranked pretty high, and the fact that no one expects them to do well helps, too. Even if they start winning, they could slip under the radar for quite some time.

11. Shakhtar Donetsk: Another Champions League campaign, another surprising group win and quarterfinal appearance. Then, the next year, they go back to obscurity. If there is one team outside the top five to keep an eye on, this is it.

Watch out for Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the former Barcelona centre-back, who is expected to be the key player in host Ukraine’s Euro 2012 run.

10. Chelsea: Abramovic continues to go all out for the Champions League, adding Juan Mata, who gets reunited with Valencia in a relatively easy group. Depending on the draw, this team could return to the semifinals, but they are a class below Barcelona and AC Milan.

 

THE DARK HORSES: 

9. Borussia Dortmund: Like fellow German giants Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund should be considered a threat for the trophy, but is more than likely to fall out in the first round. The young side don’t have a terrible draw, but their European inexperience means it is basically even between themselves, Arsenal, and Marsielle. But then, we thought their experience would hurt them in the Bundesliga last year.

8. FC Porto: After replacing Falcao with Kleber, and keeping their other key players, we’ll see how much of their previous success was based on Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas. Last year’s team would have made the semifinals, in an off year for Man-U and AC Milan. They face tough journeys to Russia and Ukraine, while looking over their shoulder and Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, their main domestic league rivals.

7. Inter Milan: On paper, they should reach at least the semifinals. But Gian Piero Gasperini has faced a rocky start to his Inter tenure, and things rarely seem to go that well these days for Inter Milan.

Eager to prove themselves, and well suited to Europe, I see them making the semifinals, even as they fall farther and farther behind AC Milan at home. We’ll see.

6. Bayern Munich: With so much talent in the squad offensively, three goals isn’t a surprise for Bayern in any Bundesliga game. Neither is six. The Champions League is different though and, as so often, the health of Robben and Ribery is key.  So far the signs are positive. Meanwhile, Mario Gomez remains a head case.

5. Manchester City: This is a team very, very well suited for cup play, so their first Champions League could see at lest a semifinal appearance.

Adding Samir Nasri, like a David Silva on the other side, is a great move, while strikers Dzeko and Aguero have been the Premier League’s two best players so far. Then they have Carlos Tevez on the bench. Those are attacking options. Statiscally, they are better at defense, thanks to Vincent Kompany, Joe Hart, Micah Richards, and Pablo Zabaleta.

 

THE CONTENDERS:

4. AC Milan: They underachieved last year, and are even older this time around, but their summer transfer window was very impressive. Like other Italian teams in Europe, they aren’t expected to go as far as they should.

We’ll know a lot more about them after Tuesday’s game with Barcelona.

3. Manchester United: It is likely to be a disappointing year for United fans. The odds are City will pass them at home, while they will go as far as the draw takes them in the Champions League: until they meet Barcelona or Real Madrid. Their young side won’t do well against Real Madrid, and we’ve already seen how they match up against Barcelona, pre-Cesc Fabregas

If they do meet again, maybe Sir Alex will have learned a few things: Play more midfielders, and keep Berbatov on the bench, in case Chicharito gets isolated.

2. Real Madrid: The minimum aim this season will be either the Champions League, or La Liga, and Madrid think they can win both.

Once again, it all comes down to their amazing competition with Barcelona, as both reach heights never seen before in soccer, and keep going, propelled by the sight of their rivals, neck and neck with them.

 

THE FAVORITES:

1. Barcelona: I gave Real Madrid La Liga, and Barcelona the Champions League, but really, at this point in the season, both are fifty-fifty.

 

Europe’s two behemoths continue to build, but this time they’ll have no shortage of competition.

Last year was a down year for the Champions League, but this year with Napoli, Manchester City, and Borussia Dortmund among the new teams, looks like it will be anything but that.

 

 

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A Key Weekend

Despite the lack of big games, this tumultuous weekend set the early tone across Europe. Some of the biggest storylines:

Sanchez is out for two months, Messi got a rare booking, and Barcelona gave up a two goal lead, as a routine early season fixture left the Catalans stunned…

Meanwhile, as Thiago and Pedro take the next step to becoming world class players, Barcelona have a new MVP in Cesc Fabregas, as he got yet another goal…

Barcelona aside, it was another great day for top clubs across Europe, with Manchester City beating Wigan 3-0, Manchester United defeating Bolton 5-0, and Bayer Munich picking up a 7-0 win against Freiburg…

Later in the day, Real Madrid clinched La Liga, going two entire points clear of Barcelona, in a thrilling win over Getafe. Bizarrely, Getafe marked everybody but Christiano Ronaldo…

Remember this date: October 23rd. That is when the season’s first Manchester derby takes place. They may be the only teams able to stop each other right now…

Despite the crazy results, not everyone in Manchester is happy. Balotelli, Tevez, and Berbatov are examples…

In the race for third, Liverpool and Chelsea look about even, with both likely to improve as the season goes on. The difference? Chelsea is getting results, and Liverpool, due largely to penalties, isn’t…

Roma’s new coach is already under pressure, after a poor pre-season, tons of new signings, and a 1-0 home loss to Cagliari. His next game? At Inter Milan…

The reigning Serie A Champions had a traditionally poor first game. Inter look to get a head start on their rivals, in an intirguing matchup with Palermo today. Gasperini will hope to get his tactics better than in the preseason game against AC Milan…

And Palermo beats Inter 4-3, after trailing 1-0 at haltime…

Juventus, and Real Betis with great starts to their season, while Fulham can only draw…

Champions League Preview, Part I

HAPPY TO BE HERE:

32. APOEL: Cypriot team with a bevy of Brazilian stars to call upon. In their CL debut, in 2009-10, they beat Partizan Belgrade and FC Copenhagen, and then got three draws and three one-goal losses, in six tough matches against Porto, Atletico Madrid, and Chelsea.

31. Dinamo Zagreb: Their continued dominance of the Croatian league never helps them in the Champions League group stage. Expect to see them back next year, however.

The money they get from the Champions League puts them farther ahead of their domestic opponents, which gets them qualification into the next years Champions League. The better, deeper team, and less competitive league, lets them do well enough in the Champions League to get more money, and more of an advantage in the Croatian league, but the lack of competitive games, always means a disappointing performance in Europe.

They may get a couple points this year, with home games against Lyon and Ajax.

30. Viktoria Plzen: They got a terrible draw, but have to be taken seriously after causing the shock of the playoffs by beating Rosenborg and Danish giants Copenhagen. Their attacking play will cause exciting games, and lopsided scores.

29. BATE Borisov: In the same group as Plzen, they will be more competitive against Barcelona and Milan, because of an excellent youth academy, and more defensive game plan. They won’t finish second though, and may have trouble beating Plzen in the two games that really matter.

28. Otelul Galati: Look for the latest winners of the competitive Romanian league to get a few surprise results, if the other Group C teams are complacent.

27. Olympiakos: Their dominance of the Greek league just goes to show how far behind the rest of Europe the Greeks are. The Greek economic crisis has further hurt all the teams in the league. Any win would be a surprise, with Arsenal, Marseille, and Borussia Dortmund the opponents.

26. Trabzonspor: Don’t expect the usual competitive Turkish performance, but Trabzonspor might do better than expected. A 3-1 loss on aggregate to Benfica is nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, they have perfected the counter-attack, as the phrase “one Trabzonspor goal is three points”  shows.

 

THE MIDDLE TIER: 

25. Genk: Very, very hard to beat at home, winning the Belgian league was no fluke. They may not get the points, and will finish fourth in their group, but they should go out of this Champions League with their reputation enhanced.

24. CSKA Moscow: With World Cup star Keisuke Honda, starlet Alan Dzagoev, prolific strikers Seydou Doumbia and Vagner Love, and Russia’s starting goalkeeper and centre-back pair, they have a very interseting nucleus to build on.

Along with the over-reliance on Vagner Love, the end of the Russian league season will take it’s toll: If CSKA advences to the knockout stage, they probably won’t win the league, while if they win the league, it will probably be because they finished fourth in Group B.

23. Ajax: They aren’t the Ajax team of old, but the heavily-Dutch league winners keep methodically improving, buying the Eridivisie’s best player Theo Janssen this summer. They have no major weaknesses, and a very effective 4-3-3 formation.

22. Basel: They should have advanced to the knockout rounds last season, beating Roma 3-1, dominating the rematch, but losing 3-2, and getting shocked by CFR Cluj. Still, they are being consistently overlooked this year.

21. Lyon: Every team in France, except Lille, has disappointed recently, and Lyon have been perhaps the biggest underachiever.

They got drawn with Real Madrid- again!- but the rest of the group shaped up very well for them, meaning they have to advance. They seem to have Real’s number, as well. They won’t be expected to beat any group winner in the Round of 16.

20. Villarreal: Winning the Europa League should be their goal, as they are clearly the worst team in the Group of Death. If you are looking for entertainment, their clash with Napoli might be the game to watch.

19. Zenit St. Petersburg: They have a very good chance of advancing, with the big match-up with Shakhtar likely the key games. But the eastern European teams might finish one-two, with FC Porto surely not relishing the long trips to the Donbass Arena, and the intimidating Petrovsky Stadium.

 

 

 

 

Sabella, Klinsmann have early success

Jurgen Klinsmann and Esteban Sabella were the big coaching hires of the summer in international football, and now that both have gotten that first game behind them, a more in-depth analysis of the decisions can be made:

Jurgen Klinsmann:  Not that Bob Bradley did a bad job, not at all, but it was definitely time for a change. The U.S. had reached its peak in 2010- 2009 really- which is what you want from any World Cup cycle, and was leveling out if not going downhill, by the 2011 Gold Cup. Indeed, for any country in the world, harsh as it sounds, may be to not renew any coaches contract after the World Cup.

The U.S. was predictable, both in terms of tactics and line-ups, during all of Bradley’s reign.

The U.S. Soccer Federation waited a long time to make the decision, but that wasn’t a sign of weakness. They simply thought about the decision long and hard, and made sure they got Klinsmann on board, before announcing anything. It was harsh on Bradley, though, whose time was always numbered.

The hiring itself, though, was anti-climatic.

Many big names were bounced around and judging Klinsmann by either his time at Germany or Bayern isn’t smart.

The bottom line is Klinsmann has three years to shape his squad as he wants it- he has lots of work to do- with the U.S. almost surely 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Grade: B+

 

Esteban Sabella:  Looks like a brilliant hiring for Argentinian soccer. His time at Estudiantes was highly successful, and the difference between his results, and those of his successor, tell their own story. He proved his worth as a tactician, often packing men behind the ball, and should adapt to make full use of Argentina’s attacking resources.

I’m still against the firing of Batista, but getting Sabella is a good reason to say otherwise.

Grade: A-

European Season: Week 2-3

Porto got their post Villas-Boas era off to a winning start, Bayern Munich trounced Hamburg 5-0, and the Big Two in Spain both played friendlies, with Fabregas notching his first goal for Barcelona. But the focus was firmly on Arsenal as the European season stuttered toward an international break:

U-20: Brazil v. Portugal: An amazing, back-and-forth game gave many offensive players the chance to show their worth. It wasn’t a great night for the goalkeepers, however, with Portugal in particular looking very weak when under pressure. Two of Oscar’s goals were floated in from long range, and one was off a rebound, but the best example was when an optimistic Oscar tried a shot that should have come nowhere close to going in, but almost sneaked between the defender, goalkeeper, and crossbar. Oscar scored three times, but like several other games this tournament, the game hinged on the introduction of Dudu.

Arsenal v. Liverpool: Both teams disappointed, but there was no way Arsenal were going to get the three points, with their squad as thin as it was. It was a good game, and Liverpool did have two enormous first half chances, but they probably should have had a couple more. It’s still early though- they likely would have gotten more chances if this game had happened a few weeks later in the season. Either way, it wasn’t until Suarez gave Liverpool an extra dimension- the space he got from Frimpong’s sending off helped- that they started to click. The first goal was unlucky, but Suarez would probably have gotten a couple more, if pressed. And Arsenal can have no complaints about the red card- Frimpong could have had four yellow cards, the way he fouled players at every opportunity.

Udinese v. Arsenal: With the temporary return from suspension of Song, and Frimpong, Arsenal stepped up their game when they needed it most; their play in the second half was great to see. They had to ride their luck, as well: Udinese hit the post at least twice in the first half, as well as having a goal disallowed, and a penalty saved. For both teams, the level of play spells a step back from last year.

Manchester United v. Arsenal: Scoring two goals away from home is usually a good sign, but it was the worst day possible for Arsenal (unless they get relegated). They were lucky not to allow ten. Props to De Gea for a key penalty save, but this young United team seem to be winning in spite of him, not because of him. The second goal was another that he really shouldn’t have allowed. In the end, the game was much more about United’s brilliance going forward than either Arsenal or De Gea. Who can stop them when they play like this? Well, maybe, Manchester City, who’s start to the season has been just as impressive. Dzeko and Aguero have been the Premier League’s twp best players, so far.

Barcelona v. Villarreal: One week gone in Spain, and the next 37 will probably look very similar. We know Real Madrid can, and will, win by six or seven every week, so Barcelona made a real statement (no pun intended) by beating Villarreal, a better team than Real Sociedad- whom Madrid beat 6-0- five to zero, especially given their early rust last year (against Hercules). Barcelona never came out of third gear, put Villarreal barely touched the ball. Both Real and Barcelona are in mid-season form after long preseasons, so expect very similar scores next week. And the week after that. And the week after that…