Americans Abroad Quick Hits

Kind of a big deal

For the Yanks:

-Robbie Findley is moving to Nottingham Forest, who apparently had the need for someone who moves so fast it makes it impossible to kick a ball straight. Forest are, at the midpoint, just outside the EPL promotion playoff positions. They do have a few games to make up, making it conceivable Forest will be in 6th soon.

-Despite Aston Villa’s abominable campaign under Gerard Houllier, Eric Lichaj has quietly gone the full 90 in three December EPL fixtures. Relegation should be just a threat for Villa; too much talent with Ashley Young, Agbonlahor, Albrighton, etc. But get used to Lichaj; we all know how bad the USMNT fullbacks are, and if Lichaj remains a starter at Villa, there’s no reason he won’t be given the opportunity to win the role for the National team during the summer.

-Well, if you’re holding on to any hope that Jozy Altidore can be a good player, here’s his opportunity; with Nilmar on the shelf due to arthroscopic knee surgery, he moves up the depth chart. Marco Ruben will likely be the starter next to Giuseppe Rossi, but Jozy needs to show he can work his butt off to get a sniff of La Liga action. 12 matches in January and February. Let’s see if he can do something.

DELIVER US CHARLIE! DELIVER US!

-Everyone get on the Stuart Holden train. Now. Order your jerseys, bleach your hair and spike into a shape that is something Bart Simpson-esque, pledge loyalty to Owen Coyle in blood and/or first born children. Bolton are one of the stories of the year so far: 6th place for a side that were bottom-half, if not relegation-threatened, the last few years.

I knew Holden was going to be good last year, when Coyle stepped in to Bolton and put him in the center of the pitch. Nigel de Jong broke his leg in a flippin friendly and Stewie was lost for a few months, but this year has brought 18 starts and the trust of directing a surprising 32 goal attack.

It’s now the time for Bob Bradley to throw Stuart out into his Starting XI. Holden sits in the middle of the park for Bolton, and would be ideal next to Michael Bradley in an attacking (! USA? Attacking!) 4-4-2. With the Gold Cup in the summer, the US suddenly has the opportunity to turn the center of the pitch into a strength, with Jermaine Jones (I expect a winter move from Schalke), Bradley, Feilhaber, Paco Torres, Sacha Kljestan gaining more time in Belgium with Anderlecht, and Holden.  We’ll see.

-Brad Guzan moves to Hull City in the Coca Cola Championshiop (really? that’s still the league name?) for a month. At 26, Guzan has plenty of years left, and this move to Hull means one of two things. It could mean that Villa are want not to lose him, so giving him a month of starts will hopefully sate his appetite as incumbent Brad Friedel rounds out the year. Or, it could mean Villa are putting him in the shop window to sell come the summer months. Bradley trusts him, and he still looks to the future man between the sticks post-Tim Howard, but this summer is critical for Guzan. Wait for Friedel to exit Villa, or move on to assume the starting position elsewhere?

My  Off-the-Cuff Gold Cup 2011 Lineups:

“A-Team”

Guzan/Howard

Lichaj —– Omar Gonzalez —– Gooch —– Bocanegra

Donovan —– Bradley —– Holden —– Bedoya

Dempsey —– Altidore

Bench:

Jermaine Jones —– Paco Torres —– Kljestan —– Bornstein —– Charlie Davies —–Buddle

 

“B-Team”

Cervi

Sean Franklin/Marvell Wynne—– Agbossoumonde—– Ream —– DeLaGarza

Shea —– Edu

Diskerud —– Robbie Rogers

Wondolowski —– Agudelo/Bunbury

 

 

The Best of XI, The Worst of XI (Midseason Edition)

The Worst:

Robert Green

Maicon —– Roel Brouwers —– Alcaraz —– Antonini

Joe Cole —– Ramires —– Poulsen —– Ribery

Luis Fabiano —– Rooney

 

Robert Green — GK, West Ham United: The dismaying downturn from the World Cup has continued for Green. Factors have played against him, such as the poor form of Matthew Upson and Carlton Cole’s sporadic appearance in the starting eleven. But 33 goals, including a host of preventable ones, aren’t helping Green return to the Three Lions setup.

Maicon — RB, Inter Milan: I wonder if his nightmares include a left-footed Welshman racing past him like a runaway train? He was the best right-back in the world the last few years, and now he’s little more than a puzzled look on a failing side. Absolutely essential that Leonardo turns him around in the second half of the season.

Roel Brouwers — CB, Borussia Monchengladbach: Subbed off in the 3-0 loss to Freiburg, the 7-0 loss to Stuttgart, and in the side for a 4-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt. I just gotta pick on somebody from the Foals’ European-worst defense (47 goals in 17 games).

Antolin Alcaraz — CB, Wigan Athletic: Oh, Roberto Martinez, you looked so silky smoove as an announcer during World Cup 2010. And we applauded a shrewd move for the Paraguay defender, who was on some team-of-tournament lists. Wigan might be a spot out of the relegation zone, but I’m picking them to be headed to the Championship by year’s end.

Luca Antonini — RB/LB, AC Milan: A walking calamity, his woeful performance against Jeremy Menez cost his side dearly in the lost to Roma, but check this; Antonini has started in all 5 losses AC Milan have suffered in Serie A and the Champions League. His squad inclusion is a scathing indictment of the club as a whole; unable to find a serviceable player in the transfer market, and unable to bring along a youth player to fill his position.

Joe Cole — Winger, Liverpool: 7 starts and 2 substitute appearances for 4.6 million pounds a year? That calculates to approximately “DISASTER”. A laughable red card in the opener against Arsenal, a series of ballooned crosses that wind up closer to the Mersey river than a teammates’ head, and the worst free agent signing since Edgar Davids move to AC Milan (this is before he rebounded into a game-changer at Juventus).

 

You both suck.

Ramires — MF, Chelsea: If there’s one starting spot that should be damn easy to take, it’s John Obi Mikel’s at Chelsea. Ramires was brought in from Benfica with plenty of hype from not only the Portuguese league, but the Brazilian National Team. Unable to make an impact, the injury-riddled and depth-short Blues’ could really use better performances if they intend on leap-frogging any of the teams above them.

Christian Poulsen — MF, Liverpool: He sucked at Juventus, he sucks at Liverpool.

Franck Ribery — Winger, Bayern Munich: 38 shots on goal, and only 2 have had the direction to find the back of the net. He’s clashed with manager Louis van Gaal, and it can’t be ignored that before the World Cup he was a $50-million rated player. Too much talent on a Champions League runner-up to be 5th in the Bundesliga.

Luis Fabiano — CF, Sevilla: One year ago I was ready to proclaim as the answer to goal-scoring problems at AC Milan, Manchester United, and a Golden Boot candidate at the World Cup. This season has been an utter disappointment for Sevilla, knocked out of the Champions League by Braga in the qualifying stages, and currently in 11th place. 4 goals aren’t enough for a player of this caliber.

Wayne Rooney — Fwd, Manchester United: Told off the England fans, slept with a hooker while his wife was pregnant, and asked for a raise and then a transfer. If you’re gonna this big of a prick, you’ve gotta score goals. He’ll probably turn it around in the second half, getting off his historic drought just 3 minutes into the new year, but this is a half-season he’ll be want to forget quickly.

 

I'm sure there's a club in Qatar who could use a bloated, overpaid manager.

I do something a little different with my “Best Of” teams. Look, we all know how good Messi and Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic have been, so I prefer to look at some of the lesser-known names that are making an impact.

The Best:

Storari

Onuoha —– Mats Hummels —– Kompany —– Baines

Busquets —– Charlie Adam

Javier Pastore —– Hernanes

Trezeguet —– Kagawa

Marco Storari — GK, Juventus: With Gianluigi Buffon injured, Italy struggled at the World Cup and Juve were suspected to do likewise. But the improving connection between Chiellini and Bonucci has been a pleasant surprise, and so has the steadiness that Storari has gone about his duties. Part of the best defensive record in Serie A.

Nedum Onuoha — RB, Sunderland: Good bit of business by Steve Bruce to bring in the Manchester City-owned player on loan. The big-money move was for Jerome Boateng, but he’s managed only 10 EPL appearances to Onuoha’s 19 starts. Sometimes City get it wrong, and Onuoha is a great example.

Mats Hummels — CB, Borussia Dortmund: 10 goals allowed are Bundesliga-best, and Hummels is the defender at the heart of it, even chipping in with 2 goals and some dangerous play on set pieces. He’s gone from a loan-away and permanent sale from Bayern Munich, to one of the most wanted men back at FC Hollywood.

Vincent Komapny — CB, Manchester City: This is one of the moves that City got right. With Joleon Lescott a 22 million-pound shadow of the Everton and England defender he once was, Kompany is the Sky Blue’s younger version of Rio Ferdinand. Still composed and capable on the ball, he’s been excellent in defense and irreplaceable in the squad. With Roberto Mancini opting for a defensive approach, Kompany has responded to the pressure of some tight games.

Leighton Baines — LB, Everton: Disappointment aside, I’ve just gotta have a Toffee up here, and Baines is the pick of the litter. His crosses are hard, fast, and accurate, and his runs down the left are second only to Ashely Cole from his position. This isn’t an abrupt rise, as Bainesy has been steadily improving throughout the years.

Sergio Busquets — DMF, Barcelona: The most maligned and least respected of the Barca starters, Busquets has held off the expensive transfer of Javier Mascherano to maintain his starting role. Busquets is key to the Barca attack; sliding into defense to create a 3-man back line that propels Dani Alves and Eric Abidal forward. His passing and discipline have been improved this year to boot.

Charlie Adam — CM, Blackpool: The Tangerines were the last team into the promotion play-off last year, and they wouldn’t have made it there, nor to the EPL, nor to a shocking 8th place this season without Adam. The Scot moved from Rangers for half-a-million pounds, and is worth so much more. He’s the first option to spring an attack, an ever-presence for a team that attacks as if their life depended on it.

Javier Pastore — AM, Palermo: There’s a reason he might be the most expensive player on the planet right now. The Argentine has provided 7 goals this year, with a distinct flair and nose for creating the spectacular.

Hernanes — CM, Lazio: Spoke about him before in highlighting Lazio’s success at the halfway point. This time last year they were in the relegation zone, but now with Hernanes and Edy Reja, this is completely different team.

David Trezeguet — CF, Hercules: Turning the clock back, Trezegol has put 8 goals in the back of the net, and has done so spreading them out throughout the year. 2 against Sevilla, 1 against Real Madrid and Villareal. Hercules are very likely to survive their first year in La Liga since 1996/’97.

Shinja Kagawa — Fwd, Dortmund: Successful Asian exports to Europe have been on the rise, and Kagawa is the latest. He spent only 1 season in the top tier of the Japanese J-League before moving to Germany, and this year he has been deployed as both a forward and attacking midfielder. 10 goals in 23 total starts for the league leaders, an impact player and a veritable “Daimyo of Dortmund”.

 

And a special shout-out for Ian Holloway, manager of Blackpool, for being just so damned entertaining.

 

 

 

The Half-Season (Mini) Checklist

Been a bit slack lately, and as you’ll surely notice, I wrote about Inter before Rafa got the sack. But here’s checking in on some teams in each of the big leagues.

Bayern Munich

Could be in big, big trouble. They’ve fallen behind before in the Bundesliga; don’t forget Leverkusen’s unbeaten run extended into March before FC Hollywood usurped the pole position. But this year is different, with Munich already 17 points off the pace. If we set the magic number for points required to win the league at 70, Bayern would have to go 15/2/2 in their remaining fixtures. Not bloody likely without a collapse from leaders Borussia Dortmund.

It would be easy to blame Bayern’s futility on injuries, with winger Arjen Robben yet to make his season debut, Frank Ribery and Mark Van Bommel less the 100%, and many others. The constant battering of vocal pressure, from club legends like Franz Beckenbauer, is pouring gasoline on the fire that is the silent and stoic anger of Louis Van Gaal. But the course of the season was still not expected to be so calamitous. Depth and youthful vigor were being counted as the team brought back Toni Kroos after a successful loan spell, and Thomas Mueller was supposed to carry his exploits from South Africa into the Allianz Arena.

Tactically, Munich are a shell of their former selves. Watching their recent draw against Leverkusen (yes, there are other teams in the Bundesliga), the 11 players on the field looked scared to attack through the middle. The first half of the game was an exercise in timidity, with the ball swinging horizontally side-to-side along the defensive line. Saved by Schweinsteiger’s brilliant setup for the lone Bayern goal, there was no attacking bite in the midfield, allowing Simon Rolfes too much influence, and Sidney Sam too many opportunities to shift into 5th gear and blitz down the right side.

Bayern are expertly run in terms of finances, but a disappointing season can be just as dangerous a catalyst for roster turnover as crippling debts or constrained budgets. We weren’t talking about Franck Ribery moving to Real Madrid too long ago, and veterans like Daniel Van Buyten and Van Bommel will need to be replaced within the near future. Bayern are certainly in position to strike back and climb into second place, particularly with the struggles of supposed challengers like Wolfsburg and Schalke, but the stain of a poor season may loom large over the summer.

Inter Milan

The only way to find a hotter seat than Rafa Benitez’s is by dipping your ass over an active volcano. But the blame for Inter’s seemingly lost defense of another Scudetto falls on both Benitez and Club President Massimo Moratti.

First, let’s point the figure at Moratti. Injuries have continually robbed Inter of 5-6 starters for many games this year, pushing in the youngsters who aren’t ready. One day, Phillipe Coutinho and Jonathon Biabany might make for Serie A superstars, but trying to shove in underproven kids in the positions usually occupied by Wesley Sneijder is folly. Inter failed to bring in ANY substantial players; while letting Mario Balotelli go might have been necessary, it was part of the club’s responsibility to reign him in. With Diego Milito hurt and out of form, the only goal-scoring avenue is Samuel Eto’o, a scary proposition when you consider that the Cameroon captain needs a respected master motivator like Mourinho to exude his best effort. While making a big splash like AC Milan (Ibrahimovic) might not have been necessary, eventually the rest of Italy were going to keep catching up, and Inter did nothing to prevent this.

Now on to Benitez. If you need reasons to blame him for the table standings, there are quite a few. First, he continues his puzzling squad selection practices, trying to throw Davide Santon into the midfield and failing to use Javier Zanetti as deftly as Mourinho before him. But his biggest mistake is trying to imprint his aestethic brand of possession-based football on last year’s world-conquering counterattacking side. Gradually, Benitez could bring in players who could adhere to this style. But trying to fire up the older legs of Stankovic and Cambiasso to imitate their younger versions is folly; as is expecting someone like Sulley Muntari to make any pass that doesn’t baffle the mind. In addition, Benitez plays with a back line too high up the pitch; witness Gareth Bale sprinting past the likes of Zanetti and Lucio in the Champions League. Mourinho allowed this team to sit back, relying on their defensive positioning rather than athleticism. The counterattack was then built on smart-passing and quick decisions as much as speed, and didn’t require aged players to chase around younger opposition.

We’ll see how much longer Benitez has to turn this around. How many more weeks before Moratti realizes that hiring a high-profile coach with low-caliber brains isn’t worth it?

Manchester City

Somehow, I actually have to tip my hat to City, in particular the owners. They make no secret of their ambitions, aiming for the EPL title now rather than later. But, in a tumultuous season thus far, they’re sticking with Roberto Mancini when the oddsmakers have often placed him at the top of the “to be fired” lists.

While Mancini may drive the fans nutty, his presence and his establishing of stability at the club are overlooked. You can only get away with so much change at a club: if you’re going to turn over the roster every transfer window, changes in coaching and philosophy on the pitch are only going to continually confuse the players. It’s certainly not as if City are struggling; despite the games played advantage, they are firmly in third place. So, despite big ambitions, the owners seem intent with small steps.

Qualify for Europa League —> Advance in Europa League —> Qualify for Champions League —> Challenge for EPL Title —> World Domination ?

It’s still an imperfect club, with the need to bring in a central striker who can pair well with Silva, Tevez, Johnson, Milner, Balotelli, and the like. One would suppose that Adebayor would be the perfect fit, but Mancini has all but frozen him out and deflected any large criticisms of this. The schedule is favorable, spacing out matchups with Arsenal and Manchester United, until a brutal stetch in March that includes Chelsea, Sunderland, Liverpool, and Tottenham in succession.

Villarreal

It’s always a bit of fun when the team with the best kit in the league (screw you, I love the look) is doing well. The mire that sits behind Madrid and Barcelona features perpetual underachievers (Atletico Madrid), the good-but-never-greats (Athletic Bilbao), and a few other teams that often function as feeders for the big boys.

This year, Villarreal have opened up a small but important gap between their third place position and Valencia in fourth. Fortunate health wise, the Yellow Submarine feature a compact but easily rotated squad for manager Juan Carlos Garrido, an eight year veteran of the club’s “B” team. Only 12 outfield players have started multiple games, and of those, 11 have started more than ten times. Santi Cazorla has returned to pre-injury form, with Borja Valero and Cani rotating in as attacking wingers and midfielders. Twin defensive midfielders are commonly deployed, with Marcos Senna aged but still effective, only a few years removed from his under-estimated performance in Euro 2008. And at the back, a revelation; personally, I felt the selling of Diego Godin would be a crippling blow, but 20 year-old Mateo Musacchio has started 12 games in a rotation featuring Gonzalo Rodriguez (at the club since 2004), and Carlos Marchena (who’s been in La Liga since 1997). Don’t sleep on Musacchio; slight discipline problems aside (5 YCs, 1 RC), he comes from the River Plate academy that has produced recent names like Falcao, Alexis Sanchez, Mascherano, Higuain, and a panoply of Argentine greats over the years. La Liga is an attack minded league, but some of the most important buys in recent memory are Pique and Carvalho, defenders through and through.

 

Killa Bees on the Swarm...

Up front, Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar have started 15 games and combined for 19 goals and 7 assists, a record that bests all duos outside the “big two”, including Kun Aguero and Diego Forlan. Even though Rossi is tipped to lead the line at any of the big Italian teams, he remains professional and passionate for Villarreal. In third place with the third highest goal tally, and the third lowest goals allowed tally, this team, unbeaten at home, looks likely to stay throughout the rest of the year.

Lazio/Napoli

Joint surprises here, tied for second place in Serie A. Despite taking divergent paths last year, there are parallels to the current club structures we can examine.

Napoli sat up top last season for a spell, before falling out of the top 4 and firing Edy Reja. Lazio spent most of the year in the relegation zone, before oddly enough, Edy Reja proved their savior. Each team is headlined by a red-hot striker pairing (Napoli’s Cavani/Lavezzi and Lazio’s Floccari/Zarate) and a future star that can create and score goals from the midfield attack (Napoli’s Hamsik and Lazio’s Hernanes). But they do so in different formations, with Napoli employing a 3-5-2 that favors a certain Barcelona-like flexibility, and Reja preferring the 4-4-2 in order to protect attacking runs by fullbacks Radu and Lichtensteiner. Nearly identical goal differences, with oft-outspoken chairmen, ultras-heavy fan bases, the two sides have nevertheless arrived at the identical position of three points behind AC Milan at this point in the season.

I really dig highlights like these, following an individual player for an entire game. Here’s Lazio’s Hernanes.

For Napoli, the new year will bring Inter Milan and Juventus on back-to-back dates, testing a club that has failed to defeat Fiorentina, AC Milan, and Liverpool thus far. The “cardiac kids” of Naples are an exciting bunch to watch; Cavani has had a run of last second goals, and three straight Serie A wins have come with the scoreline at 1-0. Lazio have navigated the tough part of their first half, with a win against Inter followed by a loss to Juventus. They’re looking to add another striker, but have been rebuffed in advances for Roque Santa Cruz and Hugo Almeida amongst others. Lazio are a bit more rag-tag than Napoli in comparison; they’ve been forced, and subsequently succeeded, with castoffs and small sells such as former Palermo midfielder Mark Bresciano, former Genoa defender Giuseppe Biava, and well-traveled forward Sergio Floccari.

Manchester United

As William Blake once wrote;

Memory, hither come,

And tune your merry notes;

I felt like spreading some culture. That memory? That’s the recollection that the red-nosed Scot of Old Trafford is the best manager in the modern history of the EPL for a host of reasons. And those notes? The fine-tuned pieces he composes one of his last overtures with. Going into the season, I had questions about a Manchester United team that seemed unwilling and/or unable to make the star purchases of old. The roster was full of what was perceived as dead weight; Carrick, Anderson, Berbatov, a lack of depth behind Rooney, and trotting out aged warhorse Gary Neville at right-back.

Yet Sir Alex has completely flipped the club fortunes in a few quick months. Carrick and Anderson have rebounded from the exit door to the starting lineup, with Rafael performing ably but not spectacularly (yet) at right-back . And the fulcrum to United’s first place position has been the born-again Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov. You could so easily dismiss him on the field; bald spot you can see from the terrace, accelerates like a minivan, with a burdened lurch and a set of long arms that look like they’re clutching lead weights. But something has clicked for him this year. He’s excelling in the tight spaces at the top of the box, and those previously wayward blind flicks and passes into tight spaces are now finding targets.

And Ferguson has been at his best lately. He got the most out of Ji-Sung Park before he was called to the Asian Cup, has turned around the aforementioned players, and sits on top of the table with arguably the worst squad of the “Big Four”. The draws against sides like Birmingham are disappointing, but don’t underestimate what he did against Arsenal. Despite Berbatov’s five goals the match before, Ferguson packed the midfield with experienced players, put his speed on the wings, and even shaded help over to Rafael so that Samir Nasri did not beat the Red Devils. Wenger’s predictability did the rest, a poor 3-man central midfield of Rosicky, Wilshere, and Song were never going to match up with United.

Oh, and it helps to have the best defender in the world right now.

 

"TO CRUSH YOUR ENEMIES, SEE THEM DRIVEN BEFORE YOU, AND TO HEAR THE LAMENTATION OF DER WOMEN!"

 

 

 

 

Accept the Un-Fixable

If you’re the kind of sod who thinks that any time FIFA gets together, “ethics”, “integrity”, and “transparency” are going to be key words, well I’ve got a nice comfy chair next to McMurphy and Chief Bromden. There’s been sniping through the press, congratulatory expositions, the requisite “why not us?”-es and all kinds of reflection in reference to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Bids and the bidding process in general.

Why, yes, there is a Facebook group dedicated to the dipshit-asshattery of Sepp Blatter.

Facebook / Sepp Blatter is a moron

As an American I won’t say I wasn’t disappointed we didn’t get the 2022 bid; it represented an amazing opportunity for me to (potentially) take the (future) kids to the greatest sporting event in the world. Soccer in this country is on a slow yet nonetheless progressive incline in the hearts and minds of the people here. Television coverage and broadcasting rights have increased, MLS is expanding and getting better (despite still being shit), and as the years go by, the next generation of kids in this country are less interested in sports like hockey, golf, and tennis; the current movement is towards more youthful sports like lacrosse and soccer. The qualities the U.S. can offer in hosting a World Cup is readily obvious; we have the stadiums, we have the hotels and infrastructure, we have the security, and we have the accessibility to the rest of the world travel-wise.

But the one thing we can’t offer is a sense of the “new”. Layered underneath the corruption and utterly disgraceful structure commanded by Sepp Blatter is a move towards globalization, particularly since the world’s game is behind some of the more basic exports from the first-world to the third-world. Plugging in all those tiny little countries to the television, or to the internet, is no small feat, but at the same time it is much easier than hosting a World Cup. What Russia and Qatar represent together is a new experience, an opportunity to expand FIFA’s reach to new markets. While England and the United States may have been able to wield the concept of a “profitable” World Cup, one cannot forget that costs for new stadiums and facilities fall on national governments and private investors. While the bill for South Africa is likely to never be paid back in terms of infrastructure costs, FIFA take no responsibility in that aspect. Instead, they have, and will continue, to focus on the social and cultural impacts of the first World Cup on the African continent.

Is there a way to fix this whole process? Not without incredibly broad and wide-spread reformatting. And even then, you just can’t knock out collusion/corruption/bias in the modern world. What security do you have that would prevent a neat and tidy suitcase of unmarked bills from arriving at the office of a perspective voter? How could you monitor calls between influential men, seeking to secure the support of the little guys looking to play ball with the varsity statesmen? Off the top of my head I have a few ideas, but even some of them are easily countered by my own pessimism:

1) Set the budgets for the bids. Ensuring equal money spent puts everyone on equal footing, but at the same time you could perceive that countries who are spending more WANT it more. As pointed out by Grant Wahl on SI.Com, ” The common link between Russia and Qatar, besides being new territories for the World Cup, is that they had by far the wealthiest bid budgets.”. (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/grant_wahl/12/03/wc.bids/) They were not the highest profile bids, especially since the U.S. was bidding, as were our close friends who just happen to speak the same language. Your average fan didn’t see Asian FC leader Mohammed bin Hamann lobbying hard; they saw the big names like Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and the Becks and Prince William dog-and-pony show.

2) Find a compromise within the previous idea of “rotation-based” bidding. FIFA has since abandoned the rotation process which sent the 2010 WC to South Africa, and the 2014 WC to Brazil. World Cups are generally held on a loose rotation policy, so you’d never expect to have England and then France hold it back-to-back. But, if you look at all the World Cups in the 25 years preceding Qatar 2022, you’ll find 3 European hosts, 1 South American, 1 African, 1 Far East, and 1 Middle East host. When it comes time for 2026/2030, would it not be fair to weigh options in the under-represented continents first?

As a drawback to this, FIFA still has to judge whether or not there is a viable venue for this event. South Africa was unique in that it is the most developed, most economically advanced, and largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Forcing a bid to nations like Ghana or Nigeria or Cote D’Ivoire could be disastrous. Advancing 30+ years in the future may alleviate many of these concerns, but FIFA may have to also reconsider joint bids. With no World Cup being held in North America while every other continent gets its chance, wouldn’t it seem our time when the next set of voting comes around?

3) Don’t be afraid to state your intentions. Dangerous as this might sound, it can minimize the damage from failed bids such as England this year. For instance, whenever China decides it is ready to host a World Cup, they will get it. It offers FIFA a first-time chance to penetrate the worlds largest market, one that includes China, as well as prime time TV ratings in many of the most populous nations in the world (India, Japan, and Indonesia). It will be a landslide vote in favor of the Chinese, especially after the successes of the Olympics held in Beijing. In a case like this, it would serve FIFA better to state it’s goal to proactively ensure the success of the Chinese bid.

By doing so, there are two adjoined impacts on other bidders. First, you can obviously decrease the cost on those other bidders. But secondly, allow those other bids to be a showcase for not just future World Cups, but for continental competitions and investors looking to make new market penetrations. Even though Australia bombed out of the voting, perhaps by bringing in investors in the tourism, hospitality, and sporting venue industries, attention and funding can be drawn there. If a country is still going through development pains, and wants to get their name on the map, this could be a wonderful opportunity. Maybe somewhere such as a joint bid from North Africa isn’t ready for a full bid now, but they can lay the seeds for a serious push ten to twenty years down the road.

4) Turn the voting process blind AND transparent. Yes, I will clarify. Releasing the voting results on a person-by-person basis can only help, and the further hope is that any financial irregularities are easier to track/prosecute. But collusion will always be a part of the process, so how do we minimize it’s impact? By increasing the number of voters, and by perhaps attempting something as audacious as only counting a random half of the votes would help. Stop presenting an obvious target to would-be wrongdoers, force them to widen their nefarious little schemes and payouts, by which you maximize their risk of being caught.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the Qatar National Team will be the worst team in the modern history of the World Cup. Without question.

Look, it’s a deeply flawed and unfair process. People are going to vote for/against certain bids for a variety of reasons. Certain countries are not going to vote for America because, well, we’re America. We’re not that well-liked anymore and it’s just something that has to be understood from an outside opinion. I wasn’t able to follow the voting process as carefully as I liked, and because of that I believed we were the front-runners. But I do congratulate the two countries that were awarded future cups, removing the politics and outrages still allow me (and should still allow you) to see that they are worthy in a global manner. It was important to Blatter to get a Cup in the Middle East; in doing so, he’s actually found a way to further inflate his own ego by jumping ahead of the Olympics in embracing the Arab world. Don’t underestimate the length of time it’s going to take to get to Qatar: 12 years is more than enough time to get the stadiums and hotels there. However, I’m still worried about security in that part of the world.

It’s obvious that there are associated religious implication in that last statement, but a dash of realism has to be applied here. I’m not even speaking as an American; I do worry that terrorists would be willing to target any and all countries’ participants and supporters. We live in a shitty and volatile period, one in which we must be concerned with the welfare of every innocent, regardless of race or religion. Tragedy struck the African Cup of Nations as recently as January, and we aren’t so far removed from the Munich hostage crisis and the bombing of the Atlanta Summer Olympics. I single out these three events not just due to their connection to the sporting, but the diversity of the methods and backgrounds of the perpetrators. Did FIFA check with local authorities on how security is going to be handled in Qatar? What kind of police increase is necessary to accommodate a World Cup? Are the Qataris spending as much money on climate control as they are on crime prevention?

The size of Qatar is actually of benefit in many respects. A smaller country means less travel for teams and media and fans, naturally. But at the same time, we’re talking about a massive increase to the population of Qatar (currently 1.7 million). Following conclusions made by The Sports Economist in this past article, we can make a decent guess that 100,000 people entered South Africa for the World Cup 2010. Those people would represent a 6% increase in Qatar’s population, a number which is easy to think of in terms of hotel rooms, taxis, and new restaurants. But how about police, medical facilities, and other security related issues?

Quick(ish) hits before signing out:

–Yes, it’s been months since I posted anything. I just haven’t had the time to dedicate myself to writing on a frequent basis, I SWEAR I’M NOT DUCKING MY HORRIBLE PRE-SEASON PREDICTIONS.

  1. At least I’ve got Man U. in the top spot, and I’ve got Sunderland up there. Sorry if I slept on Bolton, but if you called this team being in 5th at the winter break I’ll eat my hat.
  2. Yeah, I whiffed on Wolfsburg. But so did a lot of people. I didn’t like Schalke or Stuttgart, and they’ve at least backed that assertion up to this point (albeit I didn’t see them in the regulation zone). And in advanced response to Dortmund; how the hell am I supposed to see Kagawa, Grosskreutz, Grotze, and Sahin coming on like this?
  3. I still hate Serie A. AC Milan is still a flawed team that should struggle in the Champs League, Benitez is still a horrific coach who couldn’t make the right team selection if you gave him 11 guys named “Beckenbauer”, and I’d contend that at the end of the year, a healthy Juventus will be playing better than the rest (although not necessarily winning the Scudetto).

9 goals in 15 games? Didn’t someone tell you Carroll would translate well to the Prem? *wink wink*

–I’ve never seen anything like the Barcelona dismantling of Real Madrid. Flawless victory. This isn’t just the best club team in the world; I’d argue they’re better than the Spanish National Team due to Pep’s handling of Messi, and Abidal slotting in perfectly as a defensive left-back. The 4-man midfield of Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta-Messi is not just unparalleled in soccer today; you would struggle to create a better midfield with everyone else in the world at your disposal. Go ahead and try it; players like Van Bommel are not complete enough, guys like Gerrard are overrated, Fabregas still can’t pull Arsenal up enough, and youngsters like Pastore are unproven and inexperienced. The best I could come up with is Essien-Schweinsteiger-Sneijder-Ronaldo, all of course at full health.

It’s the Barca attention to getting the ball back that makes them so good. Anyone can build an attacking side; wingers are a dime a dozen, and most full-backs are content to bomb up the flanks in a negligent homage to Roberto Carlos’ exploits. But the cliche still rings true; “defense wins championships”. And it’s not just on the back line, it’s a commitment by all eleven men to maintain possession for Barca. The pretty passes and fluid movements are just one part of the Nou Camp machine, with their hustle and determination just as important.

–What is the point of the Europa League? How can anyone justify the payoff of adding 15+ games and travel to your schedule, particularly when the cash sum at the end of the rainbow doesn’t come close to the effect of domestic triumphs? I’ve said many, many times; in order to make the Europa League viable, place the semi-finalists in the qualifying knockout rounds of the Champs League, and give the winner an auto spot in the group stages. Even adding a bye for the clubs that win the too-numerous groups of the Europa League would result in some harder efforts. Furthermore, attempting to ascertain whether or not geographic considerations should be made to the group stage configuration is explorable.

–I have nothing to say, Everton. You know why…

–Super Ridiculous Playstation Football 3-Way Trade of the Week:

Arsenal Get:

Pepe

Benzema (both from Madrid)

Wolfsburg Get:

Bendtner

Vela (both from Arsenal)

Drenthe

Mahmadou Diarra  (from Madrid)

A Passat Wagon full of Euros

Madrid Get:

Dzeko

Josue (from Wolfsburg)

Arsenal get a defender, and although Pepe isn’t top-tier, he’s not too old, and Koscielny has been less than stellar. They also get Benzema, who needs to get the hell out of Madrid. Rotating Benzema, Van Persie, and Chamakh should be easy considering they each have different strengths, and aren’t the most durable fellas. Wolfsburg call it a day on the first half of the season, and grab 3 young prospects who should be able to step in to the squad, and Diarra. Madrid pick up Josue for Diarra just to bring a different look in (smaller defensive midfield who can pass, whereas Diarra is just a lesser Lass). And of course, they get Dzeko, who solves their striker problems. The only team that gives up anything is Wolfsburg, who were going to lose Dzeko at some point anyway.

Cheers,

D-Day

Over The Weekend Thoughts

#1) Andy Carroll might be the ugliest person on grass since the Elephant Man took a trip to the park, but it would not surprise me to see him score 20 goals and Newcastle to finish very comfortably out of the relegation zone. The opening Manchester United game was an unquestionable trap, but Carroll had moments (including an opening header I thought he would easily convert), and the hat trick against Villa might not be a fluke. He absolutely roars down the field with abandon like a damn Viking, and is big enough to already be a major problem for EPL defenders. Newcastle will be very, very good at St. James Park considering they were a championship team. Carroll deserves a look from Fabio Capello, as Heskey and Crouch should be brushed aside for Carroll and Bobby Zamora. But, more than likely, Carroll will then be sold to a bigger club next year for $20 million, get hurt, stop scoring, and turn into the next version of Andy Johnson.

NO NOT THAT ONE STUPID!

#2) Fucking Everton. FUCK FUCK FUCK. Bolton and Wolves?! 1 point!? Why do I even bother paying attention anymore, the season for the Toffees never begins until December anyway. *Update* But we’re even with Liverpool! Mwahaha suck it Reds!

#3) Eric Lichaj was pretty solid for 90 minutes for Aston Villa in their Europa League match. And they didn’t give up 6. Daniel Williams is a German-American who is starting to get time with SC Freiburg. Yura Movsisyan, who jumped over to Randers FC in Denmark, has scored 9 goals in 19 matches so far, yet he recently declared he’s going to play for Armenia. And still, we have no decision on Bob Bradley, as the USMNT gets shellacked by Brazil and has made no move regarding their direction. Just sayin’.

#4) Why was Nani taking that spot kick? That one still doesn’t make sense to me. I know he’s pretty good from the spot and from free kicks, but entering as a substitute and taking a penalty in the same half? I just would have figured Ferguson would trust Scholes, or even let Chicharito take it, as he’s got a powerful leg. By the way, pat yourself on the back if you thought the two best players for United so far this season would be Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov. Without a true attacking midfielder, Berbatov plays his Ibrahimovic like role with a ton of confidence right now. He kept trying to get Hernandez a goal in the Newcastle game, had a great volley and very smart pass to Scholes at Fulham this weekend.

When did the poor man's Ibrahimovic...

...leave Zlatan as the poor man's Berbatov?

#5) I wish soccer had a small element of American sports that would absolutely liven things up; “blockbuster” trades. Sure, there are some player exchanges, but they’re exceptionally rare in comparison to the US, and obviously most owners would rather take the money and pay off their own debts or club wages. This would hopefully be another cool side effect of fixing the financial portion of the game; if teams were not always having to pay off excessive and unmanageable loans, they wouldn’t worry so much about transfer fees (probably unlikely, but if I were a team’s “transfer guru” I’d do crap like this all the time).

Here’s one mega deal that involves a series of players all thought to be very much on the move.

Barcelona acquire:

Javier Mascherano (from Liverpool)

Cash considerations (from AC Milan)

AC Milan acquire:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (from Barcelona)

Emiliano Insua (from Liverpoool)

Liverpool acquire:

Mathieu Flamini

Klaas Jan-Huntelaar (from AC Milan)

–and Barcelona turn around and replace Ibra by purchasing Luis Suarez (Ajax), with a prospect moving that way or a charitable loan deal.

This works for EVERYONE (I swear)! Barca get Masch, and Suarez as a replacement for Ibra, since Villa-Bojan leaves them thin. Not to mention Suarez is a great player, contributing fine passing in addition to his goals. David Villa can now move inside, and Suarez will play on either wing effectively. Milan get Ibra, who bumps Borriello down the pecking order, and gives Milan a player they consider (I know not all of you do, but it’s their opinion, remember) good enough to get them back a Scudetto. In addition, Liverpool sends over Insua, who they were ready to offload to Fiorentina for cheap. Milan give him a shot in a rotation with Jankulovski and Papastathopoulos, a young left-sided player where they are old and in need of fresh legs. And I don’t think I’ve slighted Liverpool in the least with this deal. Flamini moves back to the EPL where he was more successful, and is surely a bet to get significant time with just Lucas and Poulsen in the center midfield. They also get to pair Hogdson with the Zamora-like Huntelaar, who gives him a more proven and experienced striker than David N’Gog, and a nice tall presence to hopefully give Fernando Torres a breather from abuse.

There are plenty of deals like this and teams just don’t operate that way. There are obvious reasons, such as the need to place money in scouting and youth programs (how do you think Porto and Benfica keep reloading?), along with stadium expansions and other operating costs. But American professional teams do it all the time. If you could hook a nice prospect for an aging veteran, realizing you need to reload for the future, would you do it? On either side? Does the uncertainty of the prospect outweigh the likelihood you could add a piece to a championship team? Lots of questions.

#6) It’s so nice to see Messi and Xavi playing together again. There’s a reason neither of them played to 100% potential in the World Cup. They absolutely protect each other from the brunt of a brutish defensive midfield. Messi gets to run around and no one can catch him, it’s like watching cats to try to paw a bird out of it’s cage. And Xavi gets his perfect safety valve on the right, someone he is clearly more comfortable with than any other Spaniard (noting that Iniesta is on the left). His threaded through ball was so good it defies superlatives; consider that Messi didn’t touch the ball until he had to shoot. Xavi put a ball into the box so well Messi didn’t even need to control it. Good God. They were down 3-1 to Sevilla after the first leg, and in the second I’ve seen three-legged zebras put up better fights against a lion…

Just put your own music on, I can’t help these people.

*Update* Here’s some Liverpool jokes I’ve gleaned off of facebook. I’m bored and not working so what the hey:

I tried drinking from a liverpool fc mug yesterday, but it was impossible.
It kept sliding down the table.

What’s the similarity between a £1 note and liverpool fc?
Neither have been any use in England for decades, and both are fucking useless in Europe!!

Liverpool FC have just signed two new strikers, bert and ernie…. so they can play with the rest of the fuckin muppets!!

Nab Fab

Transfer windows are almost always dominated by one persistent story on a specific player. There’s the constant push and pull of fan bases, agents, club presidents and “transfer gurus”. The dissemination of information over the summer is this vague cacophony of bullshit and posturing; “yes, I want to leave, but I’m happy here..I could stay forever, but my heart is at this place…I want a new challenge, but I’d like to win here”. There’s battling over fees, wages, image rights, and other issues. But in the end, sometimes we lose track of the purpose of the possible transfer move in the first place.

No transfer, complete or incomplete, has been the source of more vitriol than that of Cesc Fabregas. The Arsenal captain is Catalan at heart; a product of the famed Barcelona cantera (youth system). He will profess his love and eventual move back to Barca almost as if he has been a long-term loan in London, but he has been the apex of effort and style for the Gunners since joining in 2003. Last year may have been another disappointment for trophy-less Arsenal, but statistically Fabregas surpassed his best efforts, with 19 goals and 19 assists (and yes, I know an assist isn’t a real stat in soccer). Even though other moves, such as Maicon to Real Madrid, seemed to have more weight, this was the first summer in which Barcelona and Arsenal really had at each other for the Spaniard’s services.

And it cannot be lost that he is Spanish. While the EPL has, for the last few years, been the destination for players seeking to prove themselves at the “highest” level (whether or not the league is the best is always a contentious debate). But with Barcelona’s successes in the last few years, no other club team provides such distinct appeal, much less for a native Catalonian. Don’t forget that Fabregas’ favorite player and role model as a child was none other than current Barca coach, Pep Guardiola. This is almost like a free agent shortstop being tempted to move to New York City to play for Derek Jeter, or a Dallas-born quaterback desperate to play for Troy Aikman and the Cowboys. No matter how Gunners fans may feel about the loss of Fabregas, they surely must come to understand the undeniable attraction it holds.

If you’re lacking in historical reference for all of the rumors and posturings this summer, take a look here. While most of these stories are rumors and conjecture, the sheer volume of activity, press statements, and rumored bids should at the very least, highlight the depth to which Barcelona went to acquire Cesc. But there are always deeper implications in any transfer, none moreso that this.

For Arsenal:

It’s odd when you consider that losing a 23 year old player also means losing your captain, and the longest serving veteran in your starting lineup. But in addition, Fabregas represents Arsenal’s ability to hold on to top tier players for longer than just the period of their maturity. While Wenger is not above selling his veterans, the last two he jettisoned were want-away players; Kolo Toure and William Gallas. Bereft of trophies since 2005, pressure is always building on Wenger to bring home silverware, and even though Arsenal have maintained elite status, they haven’t even finished runners-up in the EPL since 2004-2005. Here are the lineups from the 2005 FA Cup Final, Arsenal’s last trophy.

While some turnover is to be expected, the sheer number of players still with Manchester United as opposed to Arsenal is a wide gap. For the Gunners, Fabregas is the only starting player still with the team, while Robin van Persie and Manuel Almunia were on the bench. Compare that to 8 face for United who are still familiar. Being able to create a winning culture at any team has its roots in familiarity; experience and loyalty are key components to a strong side. And it’s not just Scholes and Giggs for United, it’s Zanetti/Stankovic at Inter, Puyol/Iniesta/Xavi at Barcelona, and Lampard/Drogba/Terry for Chelsea. Being able to consistently rely on performers for many years eases the burden of not just having to replace superstars; it’s an ever-presence of leaders in the locker room, an unshakeable and fearless attitude on the pitch.

Wenger’s inability to hang out to veterans has numerous examples, and each with their own different reasons. William Gallas fell out with the manager, even after Wenger chose him, at an advanced age, over keeping Kolo Toure. Laurent Koscielny is now starting in defense, but would it not have been prudent to hang on to Gallas in a both a backup and mentor’s role? Thierry Henry left as well when a very sizeable bid came in from Barcelona, and Henry looked to be on the decline. A good bit of business to balance the books, but with Robin van Persie’s lengthy injury history, and Arsenal’s inability to find a suitable partner (until signing Chamakh this year), could Henry have made a difference for another few years? Wenger has proven himself as good, if not better, than Sir Alex Ferguson at discovering great young talent. But year after year, Ferguson’s unshakeable loyalties reign in his old war horses. Not only that, but the two prime examples, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, have reinvented themselves. At 35 and 36 years old, they have withdrawn themselves enough to slot into the center midfield, providing uncanny depth. Scholes in particular was simply amazing against Newcastle on Monday. Without Carrick, Anderson, or Hargreaves, the little ginger hit numerous perfect passes, before setting up Giggs for an absolutely inch perfect volley for the third goal. If Wenger can’t keep a hold of his club captain, a player who enjoys an almost telepathic link with the way he wants to see the game played, how can Wenger be expected to hold on to any of his players?

I have a lot of jokes, but really, doesn't this just speak for itself?

There are players to potentially replace Fabregas, but are they ready to assume such a mantle? As Cesc occupies the most vital attacking position for Arsenal, moving Samir Nasri or Jack Wilshere inside cannot be a risk or a gamble; it must be a seamless tradition in order to maintain a series of Top 4 finishes. Players like Fabregas don’t come along very often, and even as names like Gourcuff and Ozil are available (Ozil was available; Cesc could have been sold for twice Ozil’s price), Wenger fights to keep his captain. He can again look at his respected adversary, Sir Alex Ferguson, to begin to understand this. It was Ferguson who demanded to hold on to Christiano Ronaldo for one more year, bringing an EPL championship in CR’s last season in England. In recognizing that a player of his caliber will never be sold at a cut-rate price, he waited until he was absolutely sure that Wayne Rooney, Nani, and Antonio Valencia were ready to carry the brunt of the attack. But even Ferguson would admit that a player like Ronaldo was certainly enough to overcome the minuscule gap between United and Chelsea last year. So Wenger must be looking at Fab as his Ronaldo.

While teams are constantly being forced to become feeders for the financial behemoths of the world, the situation at Arsenal is much more complex. Where James Milner is a star for Aston Villa, he alone can probably never elevate them to the top 4. He represents Villa’s ability to stay relevant at all, where Fabregas, to a degree, represents Arsenal’s ability to stay elite. Champions League positions are as vitally important as the race for the title; players will always seek to move to those in the CL, and the large payouts are sources of revenue that no sponsorship deal or transfer fee can guarantee. With the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham, Arsenal’s place in the top 4 is no longer guaranteed. To replace a cog such as Cesc puts doubt in the club’s ability to place that high. In turn, it makes it increasingly likely that players will seek moves to other teams. The difference is almost like that between a BCS school in college football and a non-BCS school. The top talent will always migrate to the teams that can guarantee success and a national title go hand-in hand. The little guy might have a great coach and a great program and great history, but lacking that huge recruiting pitch is more difference than can be made up, for most players. Arsenal rely on their ability to get some of the best youth talent in the world, buoyed by the presence of Wenger and Champions League football. If Fabregas leaves, and the team falls out of the position, is the legendary French manager want to move somewhere else, or even retire?

For Barcelona:

The two styles of Real Madrid and Barcelona could not be different off the pitch. Madrid are Muhammad Ali; plenty of talk, plenty of merchandise moved, plenty of headlines, plenty of show. Barcelona, as a counter, are more Evander Holyfield (before he was shilling tacos!). Quietly they build players through their youth system, and in the last few years they have answered the reemergence of Galacticos football with measured moves, counter-punches. Unsung moves like Seydou Keita and Adriano Correira don’t grab the world’s headlines, but they plug perceived holes with available players. For all the articles you’ll find about Jose Mourinho and Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria and others, you keep forgetting that right after last season, David Villa switch over to Barcelona. Perceiving center striker as a weakness, Barca moved, and very mindfully, moved quickly. By snatching Villa before the World Cup and the pre-season, they allowed themselves precious time to reorganize for the upcoming campaign. If you knew nothing of their history, would you assume Madrid or Barcelona was the two-two defending La Liga champions?

Fabregas was going to be their biggest splash of the off-season. They were going to bring home a player from their youth system. They were going to bring home a Catalan native. And they were going to bring a player who was absolutely destined to don the blue-and-red jersey. But in true Barcelona fashion, this wasn’t all about making a splash in the papers, and fighting to fit a square peg in a round hole (a la Ibrahimovic’s struggles last year). To pick on resident commenter Porkchop, let’s grab two quotes;

As much as I think Barca may be the greatest of all time, I must admit that the story I am most interested in is at Madrid.

As is everyone else my friend. But let’s not forget that Madrid did not add a striker this summer, nor did they capture the man they were after most (Maicon), nor did they address a perceived weakenss at the outside full-back positions. The latter point is still reliant on Mourinho going through with his plan to move Sergio Ramos to centreback, but do you trust any of Arbeloa/Drenthe/Marcelo to best Leo Messi in a one-on-one matchup?

…opposing coaches are being forced to find ways to deal with the clearly superior Barca players. This has resulted in increasingly negative tactics which make it difficult to even get near the goal much less score. Guardiola’s team has experimented with a 4-2-4 last season and while they play a 4 man defense while defending, it becomes a 3 man defense many times in attack, with the DMF sliding back between the 2 CB, who push out wider to cover for the attack minded SBs…This type of experiment would technically allow Busquets, Xavi and Cesc to all play at the same time with Iniesta played out wide. Basically a 3-4-3.

Agree and disagree. Fabregas would most certainly give the side another attacking option, particularly a side that has never been asked to play without Xavi, but often struggles to find the same rhythm when Andres Iniesta is not in the lineup. With Mourinho’s impeccable record at home (for ANY club), where he hasn’t lost a match since the Clinton administration, slight slips might be all Madrid need to usurp Barca at the top. A 3-4-3 with Fab most importantly allows Messi to stay outside, where he can play on his feet without a constant barrage of fouls, like at the World Cup.

As irreplacable as Xavi is, one day Barcelona will have to do exactly that.

But can Xavi and Fabregas really play together? Even with a stream of 65% possession, is there enough time on the ball for 4 elite midfielders to get into their own individual rhythms? At the World Cup, though Fabregas did take up good positions, he was not good enough to make the starting lineup, and was in fact an unused substitute three times. Success in that tournament had as much to do with current Barcelona player Pedro Rodriguez’s introduction than any other change in the lineup. His addition added workrate, width, and a surprising amount of creativity for a player who wasn’t even heard of two years ago. Spain had new life when Villa was able to move inside and Pedro played on his flank; no more of Fernando Torres and his tepid form, or Jesus Navas dropping unproductive crosses into the center. If Fabregas and Xavi were so compatible, would Spain have stuttered to just 8 goals in 7 games?

But perhaps, looking to the future, Fabregas represents staying power at a position that may be the most demanding in the world (well, other than England’s goalkeeper). Lean years last came for Barca when the transition was made from a Deco/Ronaldinho combination to the introduction of Xavi/Messi. With Xavi already at the age of 30, a loss of ability cannot be avoided at some point, even if it is not for 3-4 years. His understudy at the club has been Jonathan Dos Santos, but the young Mexican midfielder is only 20 years at present. Moving the somewhat fragile Iniesta, or oft-fouled Messi inside could lead to problems for certain. But Fabregas, with his background and ideal training at Xavi’s position, can step in with (probably) more poise than any risky buy from outside Barcelona’s comfort zone. He knows both the language and tradition of not just Barcelona, but what Barcelona want to project on the field. Losing their grip on a title challenge can stunt the club’s growth in both footballing terms and financial ones.

One day, we have been assured the prodigal son will return to Barcelona. But in delaying that triumphant return, how will the fortunes of Barcelona and Arsenal be adversely or positively affected before such a return?

The Rest of Europe’s Big Boys

How are the other European leagues shaping up for this season? Can we expect a repeat from last year, when the title winners went (predictably) to Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Inter Milan?

Germany

A lot of people will tell you the Bundesliga is the most exciting league in Europe, and that isn’t as far-fetched an idea as you would think. With a slightly shorter season (34 games), the league table is usually much tighter than elsewhere. 15 points separated the 6th place team from the 1st place team, whereas in England this gap was extended to 22 points. Italy chipped in with a 23 point gap, and Spain featured an astounding 41 point difference.

The talent level in Germany is a little more evenly spread out, and most teams play an attacking style. I was lucky to catch a game between Bayern and Koln last year, towards the end of the season. Podolski opened the scoring for Koln, and then they had a player sent off, yet at various points in the game they were unafraid to go out at the eventual Bundesliga champions. Good stuff, and a few Americans are scattered about the league, better numbers than in Spain or Italy in fact.

Bayern Munich: The Bavarian giants were quiet in the off-season, but there wasn’t very much for them to do. They will add a good bit of attacking play by increasing Thomas Muller’s playing time, and Toni Kroos comes back to the squad after a year on loan at Leverkusen. Center of the midfield is unchanged, with two World Cup standouts the entrenched starters. Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger complement each other very well, with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben set to man the wings. But there are numerous questions surrounding the two wingers. Ribery will have to deal with the criminal investigation involving his alleged affairs with an underage French prostitute (seriously), and Robben is set to miss 8 weeks with a hamstring tear. Kroos and Muller will be heavily relied on early in the year while these two get straightened out, offering an opportunity for their opposition. In defense, Martin Demichelis and Daniel van Buyten aren’t getting younger, so perhaps Holger Badstuber will get to stay inside, rather than at full-back where he looks desperately exposed. As great a match as Manchester City vs. Tottenham provides the EPL, the Bundesliga will have an equally appetizing opening fixture, with Bayern hosting tough challengers Wolsfburg on August 20th.

Wolfsburg: Holding it down on the footballing tip, y’all? The club were champions 2 years ago, with duo Grafite and Edin Dzeko scoring more goals combined that most of teams in the league. But last year was a disappointment (8th place); Grafite squabbled with management, the defense was full of more holes than a Michael Bay movie plot, and the great dictator Felix Magath vacated his position. Armin Veh only lasted one season, and Englishman Steve McClaren was brought in after improbably leading FC Twente to the title in the Dutch Eredivise. What McClaren inherits is a bit of a mixed bag that has potential to be champions. Arne Friedrich and Simon Kjaer provide experience and youthful talent, and if they can get on the same page they could no doubt be the best in the league. You may recognize their goalkeeper, Diego Benaglio, as the hero who lifted Switzerland past Spain in the opening round of the World Cup. Talent in the midfield is solid if unspectacular; Brazilian holding midfielder Josue has much more ability than his size would lead you to believe, with Karim Ziani, Makoto Hasebe, and Thomas Kahlenberg are all capable wide players. Zvjezdan Misimović is the focal point of midfield attack, however he was a want-away player this summer. McClaren will need to keep him focused and motivated, as he provides the direct link with the best stiker you’ve never heard of; Edin Dzeko. 65 goals in the last two seasons should jump out immediately, but it’s his somewhat deceptive level of skill that justifies his $35 million price tag. He’s got a lot of Ruud van Nistelrooy in him; superb in the air, clinical in the box, but still capable of beating you with skill if you think he’s a one-trick pony. I’m picking Wolfsburg to win the Bundesliga, and you’re more than welcome to hold me to it.

Other teams around the league: Schalke ’04 have the ambition to chase the title, but allowed last year’s top scorer, Kevin Kuranyi, to leave the club after clashing with Felix Magath. In addition, I’m not sure allowing Hamurg SV to purchase versatile defender Heiko Westermann was a smart decision. They brought in former Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez, but how often do 33 year-old strikers hold up for a full season, particularly when Raul looked too old to propel his beloved Madrid past Barca? Hamburg themselves look improved with Westermann, and will hope to get a nice contribution out of “Ruud van Goal”. Eljero Elia should continue his upward trajectory with the club this year. Stuttgart look less fancied, unwilling/unable to bring back Barcelona loanee Alex Hleb, and selling Sami Khedira to Real Madrid.

Two possible contenders still remain. Bayer Leverkusen brought in Michael Ballack, balancing out a veteran team (Sami Hyypia, Simon Rolfes) with prodigious scorer Stefan Kiessling. The last team I would look at as a contender is Werder Bremen. Perhaps realizing this is their last chance with the current group, they look poised to hold on to Mesut Ozil for the year. Towering Per Mertesacker anchors the defense, with club captain Torsten Frings in front of him. A nice bit of trivia is that Claudio Pizarro is the all-time leading foreign scorer in the Bundesliga. He should be flanked this year by Marko Marin and Aaron Hunt, two younger players who can work interchangeably with Ozil in attack.

Italy

Oh, how I wish I had nice things to say about Serie A (I’m Italian, sorry!). Featuring two of the worst run clubs that still cling to “elite” status (Juventus and AC Milan), the league are consistently led by Inter Milan. “Intergentina”, as they are less than affectionally called, have won 5 straight league titles by benefitting greatly from the heavy punishment passed down on other clubs in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal (and AC Milan’s ineptness). However, they were very briefly in second place last year, behind Roma, something that can’t be ignored as the impact of Jose Mourinho’s absence from their sidelines cannot be adequately assessed for some time.

Inter Milan: Treble winners just a year ago, the biggest question is whether a coaching change (oft-mentioned Rafa Benitez takes over) is going to be too much to overcome. They’ll be decidedly rested despite the World Cup summer, as Zanetti, Cambiasso, Pandev, Milito, and Chivu amongst others had the summer off for various reasons. Jettisonning controversial Mario Balotelli was a gamble based on improving morale. Despite “Super” Mario’s talent, which may at some point develop into the best in the world (no seriously, he’s got control, pace, finishing, AND set piece accuracy out the wazoo), he was an almost crippling cancer in the locker room and for the fans. The future of Inter now shifts to the feet of Philippe Coutinho, former Vasco de Gama player and Brazilian youth. Where Benitez struggled to find a lockdown defense at Liverpool, Mourinho hands him one of the best in the world. They refrained from selling Maicon, the best right-back in the world, to Real Madrid, and are still one of the front-runners to land Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano. It will be interesting to see how ageless captain Javier Zanetti is deployed, as Mourinho was artful in moving him between left-back and the midfield. No outstanding weaknesses on this team, especially considering the other “incomplete” teams in the league. Keep a keen eye on how Benitez reigns in Samuel Eto’o; the Cameroon captain forced a move from a Barcelona side that was the best the world may have ever seen a few summers ago. Rocky Balboa look-alike Diego Milito should stay plenty busy finishing off Wesley Sneijder’s midfield moves.

AS Roma: Near-champions last year, the hiring of Claudio Ranieri mid-season seemed to reinvigorate a squad that stagnated as runners-up for a few years. I Lupi were unable to capture Nicolas Burdisso from Inter, so they instead settled on his younger sibling, Guillermo. David Pizzaro was outstanding last season, yet Palermo’s Fabio Simplicio was brought in to add depth as capable cover. The club took on an enormous (literally and figuratively) risk in bringing back Adriano to Italy. After falling out with Inter a few years back, Adriano was voted the best player in Brazil’s domestic league. He may have lost a step, but he still possess a tactical nuke of a left foot. How he links up with club talisman and legend Francesco Totti is imperative for any title challenge. Despite his advanced age, Totti is crafty enough to hide his physical limitations with oustanding link-up play, positioning, and understanding of attacking moves. Concerns at right-back and the wings will have to be addressed, with Marco Cassetti solid but unspectacular, and Jeremy Menez shows flashes of brilliance without putting it all together.

AC Milan: Let’s just try to give you a quick idea of how dumb I think AC Milan are. They potentially made the mistake of a generation by allowing Yoann Gourcuff to move to Bordeaux, instead assuming Andrea Pirlo could play till he’s 45 or something. They fill out their back line by adding more geriatrics per year than the Social Security system (this year it’s 34 year-old Mario Yepes). They hold on to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, not recognizing he doesn’t fit in with the ground game oriented players like Pato and Ronaldinho, and then complain about raising funds. They collect mediocre goalies while a slew of top ‘keepers are sitting around on lesser clubs. Marco Amelia moved in on loan from Genoa, while his parent club moved for Portuguese standout Eduardo. Oh, and they voraciously fought to hold onto Ronaldinho, who is still capable but on the wrong side of 30, and will surely at some point begin holding back the club from berthing in youth players. And let’s not forget that they drove off coach Leonardo, who despite initial struggles, wound up rallying the club into 3rd place despite injuries to many of his best players. But despite all of this, they’ll probably still be in it, due to one player exclusively: Alexandre Pato. When healthy, he’s the most skillful in the entire league, and will likely be leading a youthful forward line for Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. He only managed 12 goals in 23 games, and if he can stay healthy it’s not doubtful he could double last year’s output.

Oh yeah, I did it. And believe me, I needed a much smaller blotch to block out Berlusconi's canoli. And I need a much smaller one to blot out his brain. Idiot...

Juventus: Perhaps the only reason AC Milan aren’t the laughingstock of the league is because Juventus aggressively wrestled that title away from them. An absolute mess, the club entrusted businessman Jean-Claude Blanc as their transfer guru, and he delivered them a woeful 7th place finish (every bit as embarassing as Liverpool’s comparable campaign). Major questions abound, as Fabio Cannavaro was mercifully let go to bring in Leonardo Bonucci. Felipe Melo had perhaps the worst year of any player in football, not just becoming the focal point of Juve’s disappointing season, but scoring the embarassing own-goal that helped knock out tournament favorites Brazil from the World Cup. Diego Ribas no longer fits into new manager Luigi Delneri’s tactics, so the club will take a hit after dolling out $30 million for his services. Mauro Camoranesi and Alex Del Piero are no longer influential, and none of their strikers project creativity or guile. Most interstingly, the Juventus player you want to keep an eye most isn’t even at the club this year. “The Atomic Ant” Sebastian Giovinco will spend the year at Parma. Despite his lilliputian stature (5 ft 4 12 in) he has throngs of supporters who will be watching his every move at Parma. Every winning goal he is a part of, and every winning goal Juve can’t score, will highlight the club’s inability to provide playing time for one of Italy’s favored sons.

Other teams around the league: Marek Hamsik is the engine which drives Napoli, and they continue to add attacking options to the team. This year they brought in Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani, but may not have added enough midfield depth to make a strong run. Fiorentina lost coach Cesare Prandelli to the Italian national team, then lost scorching hot prospect Stevan Jovetic for much of the season through injury. They will certainly struggle to get back to Champions League contention. Sampdoria finished 4th last year, behind a strong defense and just enough goals from the Palombo-Cassano-Pazzini attack. Can they keep improving despite former coach Delneri moving to Juve?

The most interesting moves in Serie A came from upstarts Genoa. Luca Toni was brought in for free from Bayern Munich, yet will only have to share the load with a slew of players who scored just under ten goals last year (Rorigo Palacio, Giuseppe Sculli, Rafaele Palladino). After an exhaustive chase that was supposed to end with a move to Juventus, Schalke right-back Rafinha secured a relatively cheap move to Genoa. He’ll provide the kind of youthful balance on the opposite side of Domenico Criscito that the aging squads in the league lack. Miguel Veloso was allowed to leave after a disappointing season at Sporting Lisbon, and will be called upon the secure the middle of the field. Also incoming was Portoguese goalkeeper Eduardo, the national team starter. Whatever credit you give to the defense of Portugal, it’s always only as good as your ‘keeper. And Eduardo was very good; only 1 goal allowed in the World Cup, and David Villa would have scored many more on a less in-form goalkeeper.

Spain

A tale of two leagues in Spain. Barcelona and Real Madrid finished a full 25 points ahead of the competition, with the Catalan champions finishing the year losing only 1 time all season (visiting Atletico Madrid). If you’re one of those people complaining about the gap between the elite and the rest in England, you had better refresh your perspective before watching La Liga. It is very refreshing, however, to get into the thick battles for Champions League, and Europa League, places. Plenty of talent dispersed throughout the league, and a slew of teams that have deep cultural connections to the fan bases that they represent. Don’t think that just because these teams play in Spain that they are all Spanish; The Basques of Athletic Bilbao, the Catalans of Barca and Espanyol, and the Galicians who support Deportivo are fiercely proud of their own special heritages.

Barcelona: The most dominant club team in the world heads into a new season with the same set of challenges, but one massively important signing. Pre-World Cup, star striker David Villa was brought in from Valencia. 129 goals in 5 years at Valencia are just the start of the contribution he will give Pep Guardiola’s side. Where the languid, relaxed, and at times less than effusive style of Zlatan Ibrahimovic clashed with supporters who demanded perfect effort, Villa’s intensity and aggression will suit them well. As Spain stuttered early in the tournament, increasingly frustrated with watertight defenses, it was Villa who rose to the occassion and almost single-handedly pulled La Roja into the final. More suprising is that he looked comfortable as a right winger; though not the position he is likely to play at Barca, it is just another versatile element that will allow Pep to break down defenses prodigiously. Yaya Toure was sold to Manchester City to finance this move, and although this disappointed many fans, it should not have a glaring effect on the squad so long as they remain healthy. Seydou Keita has always put a good foot forward when available, and youngsters from the greatest youth system in the world will emerge to provide depth. In addition, and under the radar, Adriano Correia was bought from Sevilla. He can slot in at either full-back spot, as a wide midfielder, or even an emergency winger. While their Madrid rivals opt for bombast in the transfer market, this is yet another example of how Barcelona build a superior team by putting the team before the name on the jersey.

Real Madrid: If nothing else, this should be a circus. Jose Mourinho left Inter Milan after winning the treble to defy convention and lead Real Madrid to numerous trophies; two years without winning La Liga, and watching Barcelona lift the Champions League have not sated the enormous appetite of the team’s governing board. Along with Mourinho come a number of depth-related changes to the lineup; Ricardo Carvalho rejoins his former to coach to add a veteran defender, one who understands his manager’s attention to defensive work ethic. Pedro Leon was brought in from Getafe, and 19 year-old Sergio Canales looks like the future in the attacking midfield. But the biggest addition was Angel di Maria; a speedy left-footed winger who dominated at Benfica, but struggled mightily for Argentina in the World Cup. Weaknesses are hard to come by on paper for Real Madrid (left-back is always a concern), but the drama is never short in the Spanish Capital. Kaka failed to deliver last season, leaving many to doubt his long-term health and where he fits into the squad. And it is still yet to be seen if Gonzalo Higuain is capable of beating the top defenses across Europe. He has scored an attention-grabbing 63 goals in his last two years, but at the same time he spoils a plethora of opportunities from Christiano Ronaldo and the rest of his teammates. Parallel to any success in the Spanish domestic league must be success in the Champions League; an embarassing series of exits in the quarter-finals has knocked out some of Mourinho’s predecessors.

Other teams around the league: Both Villareal and Atletico Madrid rebounded from coaching changes and lackluster starts to their respective seasons to get back into the top 10 of La Liga. Both will continue to have questions in defense, but both feature superb attacking options. Villareal hold on to Giuseppe Rossi, despite the inevitable move back to Italy, and Brazilian internationl Nilmar. Atletico Madrid get back man-of-the-World Cup Diego Forlan, and will have another chance to pair him with Sergio Aguero.  In contrast, however, Villareal will rely on mainstays Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila, while Atletico will look for youngsters Fran Merida (formerly of Arsenal) and Eduardo Salvio to provide more punch.

Last year’s 3rd place finisher, Valencia, have constantly struggled with staggering debts, and were forced to sell of their two star players, David Silva and David Villa. Los Che are still adept at developing talent, but will need to get exemplary efforts from Nobby Soldado, Aritz Aduriz, and Chori Dominguez to compensate for these massive losses. The team that may benefit most from Valencia’s losses is Sevilla. Luis Fabiano has never struggled to score, with Jesus Navas and Diego Perotti providing him service. Over the years, Sevilla have provided teams with players such as Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Seydou Keita, and Julio Baptista amongst others. They are always capable of reloading, and do an excellent job of integrating African players in particular.

It’s always difficult to pick against last year’s favorites in any league, particularly when they are oft-repeating champions such as we’ve had. Injuries are impossible to predict, but they are going to shape the early season for Bayern Munich in particular, hence I’m going with Wolfsburg for the Bundesliga. In Italy, always hard to pick against Inter, but in the interest of making a difficult pick, I’m going to guess that they struggle adapting to Benitez and pick Roma. I know that probably won’t happen, but I want one last championship for Totti. In Spain, ummm, I don’t know exactly why, but I’m going to go with Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho never loses at home, and their should be some World Cup burnout for Barcelona. Not that there won’t be for Madrid, but sometimes you have to jump out against convention.

Have a team of your particular interest I haven’t covered? Hit me up and I’ll give them a paragraph in a post update at some point.

Cheers

Correia
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