Monthly Archives: May 2012

Chelsea are Champions!

The most amazing finish ever to a Premier League season it may have been, but Manchester City’s two goals in injury time have been overshadowed by Roberto Di Matteo’s incredible achievement and Didier Drogba’s penalty kick.

Chelsea’s victory never should have happened. In a year with Real Madrid, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund dominating their respective leagues, while Chelsea finished sixth in theirs, with Bayern Munich and Barcelona basically better versions of the two best international teams, and with Manchester City and Manchester United, far above the rest in England, getting outclassed in Europe, Chelsea’s triumph is the ultimate win for defensive and reactive football.

As with every champion, there were many key moments, but the turning point came in the decision to fire Andre Villas-Boas. Immediately, Chelsea’s fortunes turned. A 1-0 loss to West Brom and a 3-1 loss to Napoli turned to a 4-1 win over Napoli and a long winning streak with the one move. RDM didn’t even take a game to transition to the head coaching role– his first game in charge was the trouncing of Napoli, which they needed to win by three goals just to stay in the Champions League. The timing was simply perfect. It was almost as if the fates wanted Roberto Di Matteo to win the Champions League.

After all the money Abramovich spent, this aging, far-from-perfect team was the one that gave them a second chance in the Champions League Final. Drogba, Lampard, and Terry have been “too old” for at least three years now; a loss in this year’s final would have meant no CL next year, and in two years, this team will not contend for the trophy without major changes. They really had no business contending this year. The next generation, led by the excellent signing Marko Marin could take years to develop.

Analysis of how RDM actually did it is here—this was written right after Chelsea eliminated Barcelona.

As for the final, it was a less extreme version of the Barca games— defend, counter-attack, and get lucky. It could provide a blueprint, albeit a risky one, for a team looking to stop Germany at the Euros. The Germans will likely have somebody more reliable than Robben taking their chances— the Dutch winger had more shots than the entire Chelsea team, but only one really tested Cech. Both Robben and Gomez seemed to let the occasion get to them, which could be a key in the Euro 2012 final.

Two statistics stood out from the game:

50: The percentage of Bayern Munich shots that Chelsea players blocked.

1: The number of corners Chelsea had in the match. Bayern, by comparison, had 20. Drogba, of course, scored from the one, putting an incredible amount of power into his header. Teams practice corners so many times, and Chelsea were rewarded with that goal.

Di Matteo’s starting of Bertrand and Kalou on the wings took quite a bit of criticism before the game, but both were necessary defensive presences, and Chelsea aren’t good enough to win a wide-open game.

Meanwhile, Bayern were coming off a 5-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup final. Chelsea, too, had just been trounced, but they didn’t play their starters in the 4-1 loss to Liverpool.

However, Di Matteo didn’t make the necessary defensive moves after Drogba had scored, keeping two forwards on the pitch, and playing without a formation. Bayern Munich would almost surely have taken advantage, but both Muller and Ribery were off the pitch, because of substitution and injury.

Nevertheless, Bayern did almost score in extra time, and Drogba would have been the villain had Robben put in a better penalty— it was powerful, but very poorly placed, not particularly close to the post and just above the ground. Drogba was also bailed out by a poor penalty from Messi in the semi-finals.

With neither team playing well, and Schweinsteiger and Drogba, among others, limping, penalties were always in store, although it was a perfect situation for Torres to show his skills. He was good, but the players around him were tired. Nevertheless, he won the corner that Drogba scored from (it was Drogba’s first goal when Torres was on the pitch) and had a great dribble at the very beggining of the half.

During the shootout, Bayern were once again hurt by the lack of Ribery and Muller. Robben, Bayern’s normal penalty taker, also declined to take one, after his miss, which all led to Manuel Neuer taking Bayern’s third kick.

With more and more  science going into taking shoot-outs, why is it that teams continue to not practice them? Before being too quick to criticize Bayern however, remember that they had won their two previous shoot-outs.

Playing at home, kicking first, with such good penalty takers, statistics said that Bayern had at least a 65% chance of winning the shootout, but strange things happen in high pressure situations, as the entire match had already shown.

Including the shootout, Chelsea have allowed seventeen penalties this season, only eight of which have gone in. It proves that Cech is a great goalie (he guessed right on all six Bayern kicks), but also just how lucky the Blues have gotten this season.

Bayern Munich haven’t won a trophy in two seasons, despite having, on paper, the third best team in the world. It brings back memories of “Bayer Neverkusen.” In 2002, Leverkusen had qualified for both the German Cup and Champions League finals, and were leading the German league by six points with three games to play. They ended up trophy-less.

Bayern have the best fullback in the world (Lahm), possibly the best goalie in the world (Neuer, who had a great game), the most complete midfielder in the world (Schweinsteiger), and the best winger pair in the world (Ribery and Robben), but they haven’t won anything in two seasons.

As for Chelsea, their incredible form under Di Matteo begs the question: Can they compete for the Premier League title next year? See what I think in my next post.


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Euro Countdown: Trouble in Ukraine

With Euro 2012 rapidly approaching, the many concerns about Ukraine’s ability to host the tournament are becoming increasingly worrisome.

Ever since 2004, when UEFA awarded Euro 2012 to Poland-Ukraine, questions have been asked about the infrastructure of the two countries. When I drove through a part of Poland to get to some mountains in the Czech Republic, I could tell exactly when we entered and exited Poland. The road quality became much poorer.

The critics’ claims appeared to be justified during most of 2011, with many of the stadiums only half-ready. A host country has never come so close to not having the stadiums ready as either Poland or Ukraine, although it looks like Brazil 2014 might break that record.

Ukraine has made huge progress in the last year, and all of their stadiums and airports are now ready for the tournament.

The picture is not as rosy in Poland, where the opening of the National Stadium in Warsaw, due to host the opening game, was postponed twice over an eight month span. When it did open, the hosts impressed defensively,thoroughly earning their 0-0 draw with Portugal. Meanwhile, the Wroclaw stadium is currently closed because the electrical system is not up to UEFA standards.

The transportation situation is even worse. Only 40% of the planned road work will be finished by June 8th, and none of the motorways connecting the host cities will be completed. There will be no motorway between Poznan and Wroclaw. The rail transportation is not of a very high standard.

Nevertheless, 13 of the 16 teams have decided to base themselves within the Polish borders, not necessarily because of anything appealing about the country, but rather because of the situation in Ukraine.

UEFA has noted many transport and logistic problems in Ukraine. The country responded by importing 1, 000 buses into Kiev and many trains  onto their out of date railways.

Nevertheless, accommodation is expected to be a major problem. And, according to Igor Miroshnichenko, “not one city in Ukraine can compete with Polish cities in terms of logistics and comfort of transportation.”

Many of the problems voiced in the last year have disappeared, but only after heavy government spending, far higher than originally planned. This is a normal headline right before tournaments, and similar news has come out of Poland (which spent one-third of what Ukraine did), but it is exacerbated by Ukraine’s relative poverty, at least by European standards. A very telling recent poll of Ukrainians showed many of the same economic concerns.

Another test came at the opening of the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, the Kiev stadium which will, unless Polish conservatives get their way, host the Euro 2012 final.

The narrow turnstiles caused a large proportion of the 68, 000 attending the match to get stuck outside the north gate. Only one person per minute could pass through, and a squeeze started. Soon the gates broke, but the crowd were held back by stadium security.

Everything considered, Ukraine and Poland have made enormous gains in terms of infrastructure, but the games in Ukraine could be played in front of half-empty crowds. There is no reason a rational fan would choose to attend a game in Ukraine, especially with hotel costs rising by about 800% for the tournament, over a game in Poland, assuming they had no rooting interest.

Boycott

All of these concerns have been overshadowed by talk of a boycott of the tournament in Ukraine. A Central European summit hosted by Ukraine is also being boycotted. Germany has taken the lead in promoting the boycott, while Russia quickly defended Ukraine.

A political debate quickly started in Poland, with the two main political parties disagreeing about the issue. The Civic Platform party is supporting their fellow co-hosts, while the Law and Justice party wants the final moved to Warsaw, at the very least.

An opinion article in favor of the boycott appeared in the Kyiv Post. You can read about Ukraine’s response to the news here.

More Controversy

Poland had avoided the level of controversy Ukraine is receiving– stories about measles, dog killings, and police scandals also spread across the internet like wild-fire–until the recent story about sonic cannons broke out.

Perhaps more concerning are the bombs that recently hit Dnipropetrovsk. The government, terrorists, and radicals trying to disrupt Euro 2012 have all been blamed.

Hooliganism

Lastly, both countries are famous for football hooliganism and racism. A quick google search of “Ukraine euro 2012 racism” reveals many shocking articles. Even if half of them aren’t true, the number of articles on the subject tell you that something is wrong. England play all of their group stage games in Ukraine, and both their players and fans have been warned of racism.

Last Eastern European Host?

The security fears before South Africa 2010 proved largely unfounded, vanishing once the games kicked off. Will Poland-Ukraine be the same? A poor performance by the co-hosts could also be the last hosting performance by a eastern European country in a major sporting tournament.

Euro Countdown: One Month To Go

England picks Roy Hodgson: The Three Lions finally decided on their coach, surprising many by picking Roy Hodgson over Harry Redknapp. The British population reacted badly, but the rest of world seems to think this is a smart move. It is.

First of all, Hodgson has a much better reaction to personal criticism than Redknapp does, a trait very important for the England job. As soon as the news was made official, The Sun made fun of Hodgson’s speech impediment with the headline “Bwing on the Euwos!”

Hodgson’s tactics are also a much better fit for England than Redknapp’s. With so little time to prepare for the Euro, the country needs a defense-first coach, rather than one who believes that “tactics are 10% of the game.” Hodgson’s teams, usually hard-working and effective underdogs, have a lot in common with England’s traditional style. And getting Fulham to the Europa League final is much more impressive than anything Redknapp has achieved at Spurs.

For a more in-depth comparison between the two coaches, read this A Football Report article.

Ukraine Goalkeeper Crisis: Oleksandr Shovkovskiy is the third Ukrainian goalkeeper to be ruled out of Euro 2012, turning an already precarious goalkeeper situation into a full-blown crisis. The full goalkeeper rankings:

16. Ukraine (Andriy Pyatov)

15. Greece (Michalis Sifakis/Alexandros Tzorvas)

14. Denmark (Thomas Sorensen/Anders Lindegaard)

13. Sweden (Andreas Isaksson)

12. Croatia (Stipe Pletikosa)

11. Ireland (Shay Given)

10. Portugal (Rui Patricio)

9. Russia (Igor Akinfeev)

8. France (Hugo Lloris)

7. Poland (Wojciech Szczesny)

6. Czech Republic (Petr Cech)

5. Holland (Maarten Stekelenburg)

4. Italy (Gianluigi Buffon)

3. England (Joe Hart)

2. Spain (Iker Casillas)

1. Germany (Manuel Neuer)

Injury Update: The injuries are starting to fly in. In the last week, Shovkovskiy, Bacary Sagna , Erik Pieters, and Carles Puyol have all been ruled out of the tournament.

Squads: Ireland are the only team to have announced their 23-man Euro 2012 squad, but Poland, Ukraine, Germany and Holland have all named preliminary squads.