Thursday, September 20, 2012

Replacing a legend is no easy task.  When that legend is Didier Drogba, who left the club on the highest of high notes, that task can be viewed as near impossible.  During yesterday’s clash between Chelsea and Juventus, Oscar declared himself up to the challenge.

After Oscar was awarded the #11 shirt vacated by Drogba, some Chelsea fans questioned whether he was worthy of living up to the expectations associated with it.  Oscar put on a fantastic display during the Olympic Games, with fantastic distribution and a lethal scoring touch.  The question remained whether he would be able to perform at the highest levels of European football.

Oscar’s first appearances as a Chelsea player came as a substitute. After being a capable replacement for Eden Hazard in Chelsea’s Premier League opener against Wigan, he was decidedly more involved in their second match against Reading.  Oscar entered the pitch in the 57th minute for his fellow countryman Ramires.  He was effective, but uninvolved in the final two goals of Chelsea’s 4-2 victory.  The questions Chelsea fans were asking went unanswered in the squad’s disappointing performance against Athletico Madrid in the European Super Cup. 

Those questions were answered last night when Roberto Di Matteo chose Oscar in his starting XI for his Champions League debut.  Oscar’s evening began with a powered shot from outside the area that deflected into the goal, earning his first goal for Chelsea.  Two minutes later Oscar’s genius revealed itself again.

After accepting a pass in the crowded space outside the penalty area, Oscar created space with a deft touch that evaded Andrea Pirlo.  Following that touch, Oscar thumped a curling shot that Gianluigi Buffon could not stop.  The wonder strike entered the top corner of the net sending Stamford Bridge into a roaring ovation.  The two strikes earned Oscar Man of the Match honors as well as the respect of the legendary Buffon who said “I won’t say it’s nice to concede a goal, but it’s nice to be a part of a goal like that, compliments for him.”

The evening did not end as spectacularly for the Brazilian as it had begun.  Chelsea squandered the 2-0 lead that he had earned them thanks to goals from Arturo Vidal and Fabio Quagliarella.  Oscar’s substitution was forced following a late stomping challenge from Leonardo Bonucci, which angered manager Roberto Di Matteo.  Following the match, Oscar commented that he would have been happier with a win. 

Oscar’s emergence is the latest in Chelsea’s development which has seen the squad become younger with a decidedly Brazilian influence.  Oscar is now the fourth Brazilian player bought in recent years, and since joining David Luiz, Lucas Piazon, and Ramires he has blended in well.  Oscar has been assisted by Lucas Piazon who has translated questions and responses for Oscar during interviews.  He appears to have good relationships with the lovable geezer David Luiz and fellow newcomer Eden Hazard. 

The Chelsea kit’s first star was earned by Drogba and the Old Guard, it is now up to this generation of talents to earn the next.  If Oscar and Hazard continue performing as they have, they could be able to add a second.

Posted on Thursday, September 20, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Arsenal has had a difficult start to their campaign, with consecutive goalless draws against Sunderland and Stoke before two impressive victories over Liverpool and Southampton.  After looking toothless in attack for the first two matches, they exploded for 8 goals in the next two matches, which forces many to question which Arsenal side will show up for Champions League nights.  Under the guidance of Arsene Wenger, the club has recently decided to splash the cash on German striker Lukas Podolski and former Montpelier striker Olivier Giroud.  Their capture of Santi Cazorla also looks to be paying early dividends, which comes as a surprise to some who expected the club to suffer with the departure of captain Robin Van Persie.

The new additions up front an in midfield are welcome additions, but the back four still raises a few questions among Gunners fans.  Can the young Carl Jenkinson step up in the center of defense where others have spectacularly failed? Can Wenger's squad cope with Per Mertesacker's lack of speed? Will Vermaelen and Koscielny step up when called upon? These are the questions that Arsenal fans have been asking that will need to be answered if they hope to challenge for the Champions League title.  Arsenal should be good enough to advance out of this group, advancing through the knockout stages will be a story for a later date.


2011-12 saw Montpellier crowned as champions of Ligue 1 for the first time in their club's history.  This surprising result came in large part to Ligue 1 leading scorer Olivier Giroud.  Giroud has since left Montpellier for greener pastures in London, and his absence means the club will have to look elsewhere for leadership.  Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will provide that leadership from the central defender position where he will also wear the captain's armband.  After helping the club climb from Ligue 2 to the top of Ligue 1, Yanga-Mbiwa would love to see his club through to the knockout stages of this tournament.

Yanga-Mbiwa will be accompanied in defense by the experienced 35 year old Brazilian Hilton.  The club will look to replace Giroud's goals with some from John Utaka, newly arrived striker Anthony Mounier, and veteran striker Souleymane Camara.  The midfield is where the club could face difficulty against the skilled opposition from Arsenal and Schalke 04.  The midfield is led by Younes Belhanda, Marco Estrada, and Jamel Saihi, Anthony Marveaux with all of them featuring for multiple seasons with the La Paillade.  Qualification may be a little out of reach for their first Champions League campaign, but Montpellier will be eager to show the world what they can do.


After winning their 2nd consecutive and 39th overall Greek League title in 2012, Olympiakos returns to the Champions League where they have the honors of being the away match that all teams and match announcers fear.  Vasilis Torosidis returns to captain the Reds from his fullback position and will be joined by his vice captain Avraam Papadopoulos, both will look to continue their string of good performances from the early season and summer's Euro 2012.  Their efforts will be joined by journeyman Northern Irish keeper Roy Caroll who secured his status as a club legend last year for a heroic penalty save with his first touch in his debut, followed by multiple saves with an injury during matches against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League.

Argentinian Ariel Ibagaza and David Fuster will lead the midfield, while questions remain surrounding Ioannis Fetfatzidis.  Fetfatzidis' has not been given a chance to shine despite playing well in preseason and training matches, reminding many fans and pundits of a similar treatment received from the club by Schalke's Kyriakos Papodopoulos.  If he emerges as the talent some think he is, Olympiakos home matches could be much more difficult that opponents have bargained for.  Rafik Djebbour will feature up front for Olympiakos and he looks to improve on his already impressive goal totals for the club along with aging veteran striker Marko Pantelic.

Schalke 04

After being absent from the 2011-12 campaign, Schalke looks to return to the tournament led by a skilled youthful defense complimented by the ruthless goalscoring of Klaas Jan Huntelaar.  After a lackluster Euro 2012 campaign, Huntelaar has a lot to prove to detractors, and he has gotten underway with 2 goals in the Bundesliga campaign through the first two matches.  That youthful defense is led by captain Benedikt Howedes and Greek star Kyriakos Papadopoulos.  The duo are accompanied by the experienced Christoph Metzelder, who has lended his steady influence since re-signing for the club where he played his youth football.

The Miner's midfield improved greatly over the summer with the addition of Barcelona loanee Ibrahim Afellay.  The Dutch midfielder will be accompanied by fellow newcomer Tranquillo Barnetta who joined the club this summer with the desire to play Champions League football.  American midfielder Jermaine Jones and Lucky Lewis Holtby round out the solid midfield for the German club.  Jefferson Farfan rounds out what looks like a solid starting eleven, lending his experience to the squad that is no stranger to this competition.  It may be a difficult task, but Schalke 04 could repeat their 2010 accomplishments and win this group should Arsenal slip up.


This group looks pretty straightforward with Arsenal and Schalke going through.  Olympiakos will look to take advantage with the added travel and hositle crowds, but lack the quality to upset Schalke and Arsenal.  Montpellier, without the services of Giroud, will find it very hard in this group.

Posted on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 by Lex

No comments

FC Porto

At first glance, Porto appears to be a club in transition. Two seasons removed from the departure of Andre Villas-Boas and just several weeks removed from the transfer of superstars Axel Witzel and Hulk, Porto’s domestic campaign has begun splendidly, with them sitting at the top of the table along with rivals Benfica.  However, they have yet to play a match without the services of Hulk and it will be interesting to see if they will be able to cope without the big Brazilian.

Porto’s strength lies in their midfield.  Joao Moutinho leads the way along with James Rodriguez and Lucho Gonzalez.  This talented trio is able to boss Portugal’s Primeira Liga, but they will find themselves up against much stiffer competition in Group A.  Colombia’s Jackson Martinez seeks to fill the void created by Hulk’s departure, but the club will need another striker to step up in addition.  Whether that role will be taken up by Brazil’s Kleber or Portugal’s Silvestre Varela is yet to be seen.  Porto’s defense is slightly above average featuring Alex Sandro, Nicolas Otamendi, the other Maicon, and former Santos star Danilo.  They are anchored by longtime goaltender Helton, who provides a steady influence from within the area.  Overall, Porto has a strong side that should be enough to see them through to the knockout stages.

Dinamo Zagreb

The representatives from Croatia seek to play spoiler in this group that will likely be very difficult for them to advance from.  They are captained by their hero goalkeeper Ivan Kelava, who nearly kept a clean sheet against Real Madrid last season, but is better remembered by Zagreb fans for single handedly saving them from defeat last season against Malmo in the Playoff return leg.  The rest of the squad is a mixture of youth and potential along with a steady veteran influence.  25 year old vice-captain Sammir is one of those veteran influences, boasting over 150 CAPs and 45 goals for the club since 2007.

Stalwart Croatian defenser, Josip Simunic anchors the defense along with Luiz Ibanez.  Their midfield may frequently be overrun by superior opponents, but longtime midfielder Adrian Calello will look to avoid that along with Sammir and Bryan Carrasco.  Zagreb lacks depth at striker, but newcomer Duje Cop could surprise some opposing defenses.  Qualification for the knockout stages seems out of the realm of possibilities, but strange things happen every season.

FC Dynamo Kiev

Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev look to advance to the knockout stages through the difficult Group A, to do so they will have to rely on their experienced midfield of Tottenham outcast Niko Kranjcar, the talented young Andriy Yarmolenko, and Portuguese veteran Miguel Veloso.  Marco Ruben, Ideye Brown, and Artem Milevskiy are all skilled strikers, with Milevskiy possessing technical quality to go along with his considerable size which has made him a considerable nuisance for opposing defenses for over a decade with the club.

Taye Taiwo has joined the defense on a loan from AC Milan this season.  He will be joining Brazilian defender Betao during his upcoming 100th CAP for the club later this evening along with fellow Brazilians Danilo Silva and Leandro Almeida.  If the club is able to get a result from either of their matches against PSG, they will greatly improve their chances of advancing to the next round.

Paris Saint Germain

This summer transfer window featured numerous giant signing for the Qatari owned club.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva arrived in record setting deals from AC Milan, and were soon joined by Napoli striker Ezequiel Lavezzi just a few weeks later.  The trio was also joined by Dutch fullback Gregory Van der Weil and Italian midfielder Marco Verratti, with Brazilian phenomenon Lucas Moura joining the club in January.  After spending nearly €150 million in the summer transfer window, the new owners are surely eager to capitalize with Champions League success.

The early stages of the 2012-13 campaign have not gone as planned, with PSG suffering through three consecutive draws to begin the Ligue 1 season.  They have since been able to rebound with wins against Lille and Toulouse, but they will have to keep up their winning streak to meet expectation.  The new arrivals were added to an existing formidable squad featuring Javier Pastore, Thiago Motta, Kevin Gamiero, Alex, and Jeremy Menez just to mention a few.  Despite their slow start, the clubs immense quality will be on display for the world to see throughout this tournament. This team shouldn’t be having any trouble qualifying for the knockout stages, and once they do if the team gels properly they could have an outside shot at winning it.

Dynamo Kiev may put up a good fight for qualification, I see PSG and Porto advancing out of this group into the knockout stages.  

Posted on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sunday morning, the sound of crackling bacon and the smell of coffee brewing accompany the tones of the NFL Today pregame show.  A smile glued to my face, I am incapable of any other expression and it isn’t because the bacon and eggs are almost ready.  This Sunday morning is a little more exciting than the others, that’s because it is the best day of the year.

As far as unofficial holidays go, the first Sunday of the NFL season is at the top of the list.  Better than Maddenoliday, MLB Opening Day, Festivus, Transfer Deadline Day, and certainly Black Friday, NFL Opening Day provides fans with almost 12 hours of constant excitement and entertainment.  Right from the opening kickoff fans can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of football, if you throw in the responsibilities of tracking your fantasy teams and pick-em selections, the opening day can get a little hectic after 9 months of waiting.

After a hearty breakfast, I settled into watch the afternoon’s slate of games, something that has been made infinitely more enjoyable over the past couple seasons thanks to array of tools consisting of, streams of every NFL game, ESPN Fantasy Tracker, Twitter, Facebook, and the Pro Football Radio Live app meaning you never have to miss a second of the games you want to catch.  To be honest, if you are near a computer with internet access, there is no longer an excuse not to see every minute of any game that you want to see. There is no greater time to be a football fan than right now. 

Yesterday we saw the Jets offense explode for 48 points after the starting unit failed to score a single touchdown during preseason.  Robert Griffin III stunned the Saints in the Super Dome, already showing some of the magic that the Redskins sought when they traded 3 1st round picks and a 2nd round pick in order to draft him.  Finally, the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to earn a win against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers after losing their final 10 games of last season.

Much to the chagrin of the city of Pittsburgh, Peyton Manning returned to the NFL barely missing a beat.  The Sunday night game nearly had the full attention of the city, with Darren Rovell estimating that 70% of all televisions in the city were tuned to the matchup in Denver.  The City of Champions has an unparalleled commitment to the Steelers, but their team was let down after giving up scores on three consecutive drives of 80 yards or more.  This uncharacteristically lax defense can be attributed to many factors including the Peyton Manning no-huddle offense, the absence of Ryan Clark and James Harrison, or possibly the altitude of Mile High.  The Steelers loss has the city feeling somber this morning, unsure if it is because of the Steelers loss or lack of sleep. 

Stuff Worth Seeing:

Trent Richardson was held in check for most of the game by the Eagles defense, but he did deliver this devastating truck stick to Kurt Coleman:

David Akers tied an NFL record long 63 yard field goal with this effort late in the first half against Green Bay:

Peyton Manning's 400th NFL TD Pass:

Depending on how your weekend went, you might be combing through the waiver wire looking for a few new additions going in to Week 2. To give you some help, I’ll throw out three players that should be available on your league’s waiver wire after Week 1.

Stephen Hill – WR – NYJ – Hill snagged two TD receptions on Sunday afternoon in his first NFL game against the Bills.  While he will probably not continue this blistering pace, Mark Sanchez needs a big possession receiver to replace the red zone production of Plaxico Burress from last season, so far Hill looks the be the man to fill that void. 

Alfred Morris – RB – WAS – The running back situation in Washington has been a giant question mark throughout preseason, but on opening day Morris stood out ahead of the rest of the pack. Going undrafted in most leagues, Morris should be available in most leagues.  If his 28 carries on opening day are any indication, Morris is certainly worth the waiver wire pickup as he looks to be the workhorse back in Washington.

Mark Sanchez – QB – NYJ – The oft maligned Jets quarterback had a field day against the Buffalo Bills defense. While you probably don’t want to make him your starter for his Week 2 matchup against the Steelers, he would make for a competent backup if you play the matchups the right way.  Going undrafted in most leagues, with his backup Tim Tebow drafting considerably higher, Sanchez is definitely an option in deep QB leagues. 

While these pickups are not sure starters every week, if you play the matchups correctly, they could be great value going forward into the heart of your regular season schedule.

It was a good weekend for Sweatpants Picks, going 4-0 so far, with only the Chargers -1 keeping me from a perfect week.  Should be some exciting Monday night football with Bengals vs. Ravens and Chargers vs. Raiders on the ticket for tonight.

Posted on Monday, September 10, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Monday, August 20, 2012

The summer has been spectacular for soccer fans, after enjoying a spectacular Euro 2012 tournament and an entertaining Olympic tournament, business finally resumes as usual in the world’s most popular league.  The opening weekend provided a lot of entertainment for fans, with a shocking upset, two thrashings from unexpected teams, and a dramatic comeback win to cap off the weekend.  With eleven days left until the transfer deadline there is still time for teams to account for weaknesses shown in the early stages, however some gaps may be too gaping to fill in such a short period. Now, let’s get stuck in!

Liverpool vs. West Brom

This matchup featured two managers making their debut, but Steve Clarke will certainly be the happier of the two managers.  Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool squad looked to stick to his trademark quick passing style in the first 40 minutes of the match, but West Brom looked impressive throughout the match and was able to capitalize on several Liverpool mistakes.  Luis Suarez wasted several opportunities throughout the match, the same struggles that earned him the honor of being the statistically most wasteful striker in the Premier League last season.

Zoltan Gera opened the scoring just before halftime with a spectacular strike from outside the area that found the top corner of the net past a helpless Pepe Reina.  Following the halftime break the match took a turn for the worse for Liverpool when James Morrison dissected the Liverpool defense with a through ball to Shane Long.  Long was clear in on goal when he was fouled from behind by Daniel Agger and the Danish captain was sent off for his professional foul.  Following the incredulous Agger’s sending off, Shane Long sent a very poor penalty straight at Pepe Reina, granting Liverpool a momentary reprieve.  Just three minutes later, 
Martin Skrtel conceded another penalty by clipping the heels of Shane Long.  This time Peter Odemwingie made no mistake and thumped the penalty kick past Pepe Reina making it 2-0 in favor of the Baggies.

West Brom finished their scoring with an impressive debut goal from Chelsea’s loaned young striker Romelu Lukaku.  Lukaku found space in the Liverpool penalty area and powered a header into the back of the net for the match’s third goal.  Liverpool was perhaps not as poor as the 3-0 final score indicated, but they looked desperate for long stretches of the game following a solid opening 30 minutes.  Joe Allen turned in a solid performance juxtaposed by a lackluster Steven Gerrard, who may be struggling to adapt to Brendan Rogers new tactics.  With Liverpool associated with several top transfer rumors including Fulham outcast Clint Dempsey, look for "relegation candidates" Liverpool to make several moves before the deadline.  West Brom can be happy with their new manager Steve Clarke’s debut; it was a great performance in front of a rowdy opening day home crowd.

Queens Park Rangers vs. Swansea City

Swansea earned the honor of being the first team to score in the 2012-13 Premier League Campaign, coming off of a left footed strike from newcomer Michu that caught Robert Green off guard.  It was a goal in his first game with the club since coming from La Liga outfit Rayo Vallecano, but Swansea was only getting started.  QPR had several opportunities to respond in the first half, but was repeatedly turned away by Swansea keeper Michel Vorm.  Swansea had several opportunities to make the match 2-0 before halftime, but their efforts were kept out by a combination of Robert Green goalkeeping and the woodwork.

After halftime, Swansea rose into the ascendency with another left footed strike from Michu.  The curling effort, came off great counter attacking play and a killer ball from Wayne Routledge.  Matters would only grow worse for QPR with over 35 minutes remaining in the match.  Swansea struck on the counter attack again, with Michu providing an interception for Routledge who provided another killer ball this time to Nathan Dyer who put thumped it past Green.  Nathan Dyer doubled up several minutes later after breaking the QPR’s offside trap and blasting another past Green.

Swansea completed the rout ten minutes later by capitalizing on a QPR mistake.  Michu pounced on a loose ball and moved it to substitute striker Scott Sinclair who finished cleanly with a left footed strike.  It was a truly impressive performance from Swansea and one that QPR manager Mark Hughes will want to quickly forget.  QPR’s lacked any sense of defensive identity and were repeatedly exploited by the counterattacking Swans.  Michael Laudrup could not have dreamed of a better start to his Swansea career, as Swansea demonstrated the same style of enterprising and entertaining football that they enjoyed under Brendan Rodgers.

Full MOTD Highlights

Arsenal vs. Sunderland

In what was easily the most boring match of the opening weekend, Arsenal and Sunderland played to a scoreless draw at the Emirates Stadium.  Following Robin Van Persie’s departure last week, Arsenal looked to recover with a win against the Black Cats, however wasteful finishing from debuting strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, highlighted what was in all honestly a drab performance from the Gunners.  Santi Cazorla nearly scored in the early minutes and looked impressive throughout his debut match. 

Arsenal fans have been quick to criticize Sunderland for time wasting tactics down the stretch, but their clubs play also left much to be desired.  This match was unfortunately chosen by ESPN for their opening day coverage, and it probably did not serve as the best available example of the beautiful game.  With over a week still left in the transfer window, Arsenal will probably have to dip into the cash from Van Persie’s departure in order to find some added depth at the full back and striking positions.  Sunderland can be happy about earning a point from their trip to the Emirates, but will also have to spend if they look to improve on last year’s mid-table finish. 

Fulham vs. Norwich

Fulham continued their tradition of never losing an Opening Day match, with a 5-0 thumping of Norwich in a nightmare debut for Norwich manager Chris Houghton.  Despite enjoying an early chance from Andrew Surman, Norwich was unable to settle into the game.  John Arne Riise was able to find unmarked Damien Duff in the 26th minute and Duff calmly controlled the long ball and finished past John Ruddy for the match’s opening goal.  Fulham got another goal before the half this time with Duff providing the assist to Mladen Petric who headed the ball just over the goal line.

After spending much of the preseason wondering where the goals would come from without Clint Dempsey, Fulham responded with three more in the second half.  Petric doubled his total with a left footed effort that took a deflection and left Ruddy rooted to the spot.  Alexander Kacaniklic earned his first Premier League goal off of a back heel nutmeg pass from Petric that allowed him to be clear in on the frustrated John Ruddy.  Fulham finished their scoring with a Steve Sidwell penalty that was earned by Hugo Rodallega who was fouled in the penalty area. 

With the sale of Clint Dempsey looming on the horizon, Fulham responded spectacularly in their home opener.  With many wondering where the goals would come from without Dempsey, it was a great team response amid the controversy.  Norwich will have a lot they will want to forget from this match and will need to improve their back line to give John Ruddy more support than he received against Fulham.  Fulham’s Martin Jol expressed his frustration with the transfer window this week, saying it was unfair to smaller clubs that have to wait for transfer funds from selling before making their purchases.

Reading vs. Stoke City

Newly promoted Reading was able to rescue a point from Stoke City in their opening Premier League fixture.  Reading’s return to the Premier League did not begin as they would have hoped.  Stoke City looked solid for a large portion of the game, and nearly jumped out to an early lead off of a header from Jonathan Walters.  Stoke eventually found the goal they sought in the 35th minute thanks to a fortunate bounce to Michael Kightly, Kightly’s strike was driven into the ground and a mistake by Reading keeper Adam Federici allowed the ball into the back of the net.

Pavel Pogrebnyak’s best efforts on goal were turned away by Asmir Begovic several times, frustrating the Russian striker along with the always formidable Ryan Shawcross. Stoke looked to be in control of the match until Dean Whitehead earned his second yellow card, which led to his dismissal for a foul in the penalty area on Garath McCleary in the 89th minute.  Adam Le Fondre stepped up to take Reading’s penalty and just barely beat the diving Begovic to the left to equalize.  In the five minutes of stoppage time Adam Harte nearly earned them three points with a free kick that barely missed high.  It was a comeback good enough to earn Reading their first point of the Premier League campaign.

Reading has already begun spending before the deadline day, announcing today their capture of Stuart Taylor on a one year contract.  Surely this will not be the last signing by either club before the deadline.  

West Ham vs. Aston Villa

West Ham returned to the Premier League with a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday.  West Ham nearly opened the scoring in the early stages of the match with Kevin Nolan’s free kick sailing just wide, striking the stanchion behind the goal.  Nolan was able to find the back of the net later in the first half off of a free kick that eventually fell to his feet, allowing him to finish easily from point blank range against Shay Given.  The goal signaled West Ham’s return to the Premier League, but the game would become a testy affair in the second half. 

Carlton Cole looked to have been fouled in the penalty area by Dutch defender Ron Vlaar, but no foul was given and West Ham had to look elsewhere for sympathy.  Vlaar nearly got on the score sheet with an effort from distance that forced a save from Jussi Jaaskelainen.  West Ham nearly made it 2-0 before the final whistle with debutant Modibo Maiga rounding keeper Shay Given and sending a ball towards the goal that was cleared just in time by Nathan Baker.

Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

The biggest matchup of the Opening Day fixture list pitted last year’s 4th and 5th place finishers against each other in an exciting early season matchup that had all the pundits talking.  Andre Villas-Boas’ first match with Tottenham comes at a time when the club is undergoing significant transitions, with superstar midfielder Luka Modric expected to depart in the coming days and was not included in the team selected for the match.  Gareth Bale featured at striker for AVB’s squad, wearing the number 11, marking the first occasion that he has done either for the club.  Bale nearly opened scoring the first half, but his header met the crossbar and was cleared away from danger.

The game back and forth throughout the first half and it was very closely played before Demba Ba opened the scoring.  A failed Kyle Walker clearance led to a beautiful curling strike from inside the area nine minutes into the second half.  A controversy over whether a ball had gone out of play led Newcastle manager Alan Pardew to push the fourth official, for which he was sent to the stands to watch the remainder of the game away from his squad.  It took just over twenty minutes for Tottenham to respond, but it eventually came off of Aaron Lennon’s looping cross that met the head of Jermaine Defoe before being rebounded into the net by the English winger. 

Hatem Ben Arfa eventually earned the winner for Newcastle thanks to a run that split the Tottenham defense forcing the Spurs defenders to take him down in the penalty area.  Ben Arfa then confidently strode to the penalty spot, forced Spurs keeper Brad Friedel in to wrong direction, and drove home the match winning spot kick.  The St. James Park crowd roared their approval of the opening day win and the three points in the early season could go a long way in the beginning Newcastle’s season.

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic

Newcomer Eden Hazard had a brilliant start to his Chelsea career, having a hand in creating both of Chelsea's early goals.  Hazard accepted a pass and turned on a dime before sending a pristine pass to the streaking Branislav Ivanovic.  The defender made the finish look easy, with a blast behind the keeper Ali Al-Habsi.  Hazard also created the second goal thanks to some fancy dribbling in the penalty area that forced a foul from Wigan defender Ivan Ramis.  Frank Lampard took the spot kick and made no mistake with the finish and Chelsea held a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the game.

Following the early goals conceded, Wigan rose to meet Chelsea's challenge.  They enjoyed almost full run on the Chelsea flanks and were able to send in cross after cross, however Chelsea dealt with them all in turn and managed to hold Wigan scoreless.  Wigan's Victor Moses played a spectacular match in front of the team he may be soon joining, with rumors running rampant surrounding a possible transfer deal in the coming days.

Wigan's free run of attacking down the flanks highlighted the weakness of Chelsea on the right flank, with Branislav Ivanovic playing right fullback in place of his natural center half position.  Chelsea newcomer Oscar also dazzled with a tricky back heel pass, but it will take more than the trickery of Hazard and Oscar for Chelsea to repeat their title as European Champions and improve their 6th place finish in the Premier League from last season.  

Manchester City vs. Southampton

Southampton nearly stole a victory in their first game in the Premier League, but the storybook beginning was not meant to be for the Saints.  The day began looking disastrous for them, with a back heel pass from Samir Nasri catching Jos Hooifeld off guard forcing him to foul Carlos Tevez in the penalty area.  However, their dismal beginning was soon overturned with a poor penalty from David Silva and Southampton had managed to recover.  It was a short lived recover because just before halftime Samir Nasri and Carlos Tevez hooked up again, this time Carlos Tevez beat Southampton keeper Kelvan Davis on the near post for the match's opening goal.

A scramble and deflection in the penalty area fortunately fell to Southampton's Rickie Lambert and allowed the Saints to pull level.  Minutes later Southampton was able to capitalize on a mistake from Man City newcomer Jack Rodwell and lead a counterattack that ended with a blast from Steven Davis.  Joe Hart was helpless to make the save and suddenly Southampton held a 2-1 lead.

Their lead was short lived though because Manchester City immediately struck back through some nice teamwork off a set piece that led to a short range effort by Edin Dzeko.  Samir Nasri tilted the game in Manchester City's favor with an 80th minute blast from the center of the penalty area that Davis was helpless to prevent.  It was a good comeback win for City, but they had looked vulnerable despite earning a win reminiscent of the one that earned them the Premier League trophy on the final matchday last May.

Posted on Monday, August 20, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Last night, the United States Men’s National Team was able to overcome 75 years of history, a Mexican side fresh off of a Gold Medal victory at the London Olympics, and a hostile crowd of thousands to earn their first victory on Mexican soil.  This latest chapter of North America’s greatest football rivalry sees the United States improve their all-time record on Mexican soil to 1-23-1.  Despite being dominated throughout the majority of the night, the United States was able to find a goal against the run of play and steal a 1-0 victory.

The squad selected by Jurgen Klinsmann raised some eyebrows considering that the back four had a combined 8 CAPs prior to this match.  The youthful back line rose to the occasion, but was rescued from the brink of defeat several times by goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard played an incredible match making several timely saves, including a deflected shot that forced Howard to make a sprawling save just after the United States had pulled ahead.

The match’s lone goal came from an unlikely source, defender Michael Orozco Fiscal with his first goal at the international level.  Brek Shea created the goal just moments after his introduction to the match, fearlessly running at the Mexican defenders before slotting the ball to Terrence Boyd.  Boyd flicked the ball on with a backheel pass to Orozco Fiscal who finished past Guillermo Ochoa. 

The historic goal came just minutes after an extraordinary miss by Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez who had frustrated Mexico fans throughout the night.  Chicarito also had a shot deflected which forced Tim Howard to make a difficult sprawling save along with a soaring header that was again met by the hand of the diving Howard.  Despite enjoying the majority of the chances, outshooting the United States, and holding a 10-0 advantage in corner kicks; Mexico was unable to use any of these advantages to their benefit and suffered their first defeat to their rivals since 2009.

The historic victory for the United States comes in a friendly match, meaning that no greater glory was at stake for the match.  Some American soccer fans have been quick to downplay the importance of the victory, but this victory signals the first major victory over a rival during the Klinsmann Era.  After enjoying victories over Italy and Scotland, the USMNT had struggled against Canada and Guatemala.  Going into the two upcoming World Cup qualifying matches against Jamaica, this victory could serve as an important boost to morale considering it came without several of the teams biggest names including Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.

Regardless of the efforts to downplay the importance, the victory should be celebrated because of its sheer rarity.  American fans should be willing to acknowledge that the USMNT is not a powerhouse in world football, but has an opportunity to improve under the influence of new management and the ability to attract American-eligible players to the cause.  Victories like the one at Azteca last evening could inspire future top tier talents to declare their talents for the United States like goalscorer Michael Orozco Fiscal or Terrence Boyd.  As of this moment, prospects appear bright for the future of American football because winning on the hallowed grounds of Azteca is no longer something to only dream about.  

Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Before I get to my English Premier League season preview over the next few days, I’d like to write about something I care about.  I love when soccer and politics become intertwined, but too often it isn’t for the betterment of either. 

The Libor Rigging Scandal is regarded by many financial experts to have been the largest financial scandal in history.  It is suspected that up to twenty major banks raked in untold billions of dollars by altering the London Interbank Offered Rate (the rate at which banks loan each other money) in an effort to misrepresent the strength of their institutions.  By altering this rate, these banks manipulated a rate utilized in virtually every short term interest payment around the world, meaning they essentially stole from everybody who makes an interest payment on anything.  This is theft on an unprecedented scale, it makes Richard Pryor’s scheme in Superman III look like child’s play, and it puts every heist in history to shame.

Barclays is one of the banks involved at the center of this scandal.  After paying fines of $200 million to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, $160 million by the U.S. Justice Department, and $59.5 million to Financial Services Committee, they have still managed to come away far ahead in this heist.  It has been estimated by CitiGroup that by manipulating the Libor rate by just 0.25% they could yield $936 million.  With Barclays holding similar amounts of trading options and this scandal dating back to as early as 2006, the fines aren’t even close to covering what these banks have stolen from everybody. 

People should be angry about this, but so far it has been met with the same lukewarm reactions and halfhearted responses that have become far too common when dealing with financial scandals.  Prosecution will be difficult and it is likely that nobody will be punished for these financial crimes against humanity.  If you’re looking for a little humor in this calamity, look no further than the names of these financial super-villains, Mr. Rich Ricci and Mr.Bob Diamond.

As a football fan, we routinely see how corruption and indifference towards it affects our sport.  Match fixing scandals and bribery have run rampant in Italian football for decades, the elections for FIFA President were practically rigged when Sepp Blatter had his opposition investigated for corruption while remaining untouchable, even the former FIFA President Joao Havelange has been found to have taken bribes while in office.  These scandals prevent leadership from acting in the best interest of the sport, the same goes for politics and the financial industry. 

This corruption costs fans money and degrades the beautiful game before our very eyes, even in the crowned jewel of football leagues the English Premier League.  Since 2001, Barclays Bank has been a naming sponsor of the English Premier League.  For over a decade now, the world’s most popular league has been associated with an institution that has been revealed to be overwhelmingly corrupt.  Just last month on July 12, in the wake of the scandal revealing itself, the Premier League accepted Barclays naming sponsorship of the league until 2016 at a rate of £40 million per season. 

We have all been victims in this scandal, and it is frustrating to see the tentacles of corruption tighten their grip around the game we dearly love.  What we can do is refuse to acknowledge Barclays as the naming sponsor of the league.  Barclays does not deserve the privilege to sponsor the greatest league in the world and have their Barclays ribbons hanging off of the Premier League trophy.  Until the Premier League sponsor is changed I will not refer to the league by its sponsored name.  It may only be a symbolic protest and it will probably go unheard, but these institutions deserve to be shamed and dismantled as a result of the crimes they have committed.  The time has come for people to say "Enough with this shit." 

Posted on Tuesday, August 14, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Monday, July 2, 2012

Spain solidified their place in history on Sunday with their third consecutive major tournament win.  Spain has become the first team to win consecutive European Cup titles which has led many to wonder: Is this the best football team ever?

Full Highlights Here

The answer to that question is: perhaps. They have a signature style with their tiki-taka passing and extraordinary technical skills.  Del Bosque's 4-6-0 has come under heavy criticism, but it has certainly produced results.  The downside is that for long stretches, particularly against France and Portugal, Spain has been dreadfully boring.  This cannot be entirely blamed on Spain, who has been forced to compete with teams parking the bus, but they must at least be held partially responsible for not fielding a striker for long stretches.

Spain played their beautiful symphony throughout the first half, the opening stages had play flowing back and forth between the two sides.  Spain eventually struck first when Cesc Fabregas broke down the Italian flank and cut inside before delivering a precise, pristine ball to the forehead of David Silva who powered in the header for the goal.  Less than fifteen minutes into the match and Spain was already demonstrating their superiority.

All of Italy's good fortunes that saw them through to the final, betrayed them on Sunday.  Shortly after the twenty minute mark, the lynchpin in their backline Giorgio Chiellini went down with an injury and had to be substituted for Federico Balzaretti.  Italy had several opportunities, but none of them yielded results with Antonio Cassano's effort going straight at Iker Casillas and Mario Balotelli's long range shot sailing high and wide.  Italy refused to allow Spain to dominate possession, controlling the ball for long stretches, but never were able to find their way through the suffocating Spanish defense.

Just before the halftime break Spain struck again.  Jordi Alba took a lightning quick run down the left flank before receiving a Xavi pass the dissected the defense.  Alba accepted the pass and found himself alone against keeper Gianluigi Buffon.  Alba calmly slotted the ball past the Italian captain and Spain had earned their 2-0 lead. This capped off a fantastic tournament for Alba, earning his first competitive goal for Spain in the most spectacular setting.

Italy came out after the halftime break with something to prove, and set about doing that right from the first kick.  Antonio Cassano was substituted following the break, still recovering from brain surgery and not fully fit, in favor of Antonio Di Natale.  Italy immediately broke down the left side and eventually worked the ball around the Spanish penalty area before finding Di Natale in the center of the area, but the substitute sent the header sailing over the bar.  Italy had another opportunity to get back in the game a few minutes later, but Di Natale's efforts were twice turned away by Iker Casillas.

Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has had a fantastic tournament, already exceeding expectations by reaching the Final.  Prandelli has turned the Italian squad around after their awful 2010 World Cup campaign and this squad been a revelation for Italian fans.  Under his guidance he has instituted a meritocratic system, managed giant egos, and successfully injected youth into a side dominated by the old guard.  His team has utilized its experience, with Andrea Pirlo earning plaudits and entering into Ballon D'Or discussion after a fantastic tournament.

His influence has been undeniably positive, but his final influence on the final will be one he will want to forget.  Pradelli opted to substitute the effective Riccardo Montolivo in favor of Thiago Motta, but just five minutes into Motta's appearance he suffered an injury.  This forced Italy to play a man down for the remainder of the match.  This severely affected the Italian squad, already suffering from fatigue, and they only managed one more effort at the Spanish goal, which Mario Balotelli again sent over the bar.  It was a frustrating performance for the young striker, who was constantly hassled by the Spanish defense and not allowed a single touch inside the Spanish penalty area.

Fernando Torres was introduced in the 75th minute and made a significant impact on the match despite only featuring for the final fifteen minutes of regular time.  For a striker out of form, he has found quite a great deal of success in recent months.  Torres became the first player to score in two European Cup Finals, with a goal in the 84th minute, it was an easy finish past Buffon who had been continuously left out to dry by the Italian defense.  Torres was not finished yet and earned an assist after selflessly passing to Juan Mata for Spain's fourth goal.  The selfless act was enough to earn Torres the Golden Boot as the tournament's leading scorer.

Spain celebrated after the final whistle by bringing their children onto the pitch, while Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo sobbed with their Italian teammates.  The tournament concluded as many suspected it would, with Spain lifting the trophy for the second consecutive time.  Their result was well earned, they responded to criticism with a fantastic display to silence their critics and sealed their place in history.  They will return home to a nation in celebration, a much needed distraction from the prolonged economic hardships their nation has faced.

Posted on Monday, July 02, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mario Balotelli answered the call on Thursday evening in Warsaw.  After drawing criticism for squandering several chances earlier in the tournament, Balotelli buried two opportunities in the first half today, to lift Italy to a stunning 2-1 victory over tournament co-favorites Germany.  

Italy came into the match marked by most as underdogs, but they had not conceded a goal in over 200 minutes of competition, since conceding to Croatia in their opening match of the tournament.  Their defense remained strong in the early stages of the match, determined to carry out the tactic of isolating Germany's Mesut Ozil from his teammates.  Joachim Low opted to play Tony Kroos in place of the previously favored Thomas Muller and it may have cost him in the end, despite Muller featuring for the final twenty minutes of the match.

Italy's first strike came off of an excellent turn by Antonio Cassano followed by a cross sent in from the left. Mario Balotelli elevated over Holger Badstuber and headed it past Manuel Neuer for the opening goal.  It was a great break that began with a splendid pass from Andrea Pirlo, who continued his midfield dominance in this match.  Balotelli celebrated his goal by embracing his teammates, particularly Cassano, who could not have played a better cross.  

In the ensuing minutes after the goal, Germany enjoyed the majority of the chances and forced several saves from Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon.  Despite appearing shaky in the early stages of the match, and nearly conceding if not for the poise of Andrea Pirlo guarding the post, Buffon regained his composure and turned in a spectacular performance in the Italian goal.  Buffon's best save came against Sami Khedira on a blast from outside the penalty area that Buffon was just able to push wide with an outstretched hand.

The decisive break came for Italy just three minutes after Khedira's thwarted blast.  Ricardo Montolivo found Mario Balotelli alone in space behind the German defense.  The Manchester City striker accepted the ball with ease, built up speed, and then unleashed an emphatic blast that found the upper corner of the goal.  Manuel Neuer was helpless to prevent the goal and was rooted to the spot, the second time this evening he found himself in that predicament.  Balotelli received a yellow card for removing his shirt in celebration, but he will not miss the final as a result of accrued cards.

Following the halftime break, Joachim Low substituted striker Mario Gomez in favor of Marco Reus.  Reus nearly provided his manager with a saving goal, coming off a free kick in the 62nd minute, but once again Gigi Buffon rose to the occasion and parried the shot over the net.  Following that moment, Germany looked increasingly desperate.  Their main service came from the wings in the form of desperate crosses that never found their mark and were easily dealt with by the cohesive Italian defense. 

As Germany looked increasingly desperate they left massive holes in their defense.  Italy was unfortunate not to score on these opportunities and squandered several due to poor finishing.  When one such chance eventually went in the net, it was ruled offside by the linesman, another opportunity to seal the deal wasted.

Germany finally got the opportunity they sought thanks to a fortunate decision from the referee when the ball struck the arm of Federico Balzaretti in the 91st minute.  Mesut Ozil capably stepped up and finished the penalty, despite Gigi Buffon diving in the correct direction.  The late goal did not give way to the dramatic finish that Ze Germans sought, and the Italians celebrated their deserved victory.

Italy will now face Spain, in a rematch of their group stage matchup where they drew 1-1.  The juxtaposition of styles and expectations of the fans should make for an entertaining game, despite Spain drawing criticism for playing some dreadfully boring football throughout the tournament. 

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Accept the pass, turn, build up speed. These were things that came naturally after thousands of hours of training. What had practically become second nature would soon become impossible. Performing those simple tasks that I had already done a dozen times that day would end up being my final act on the football pitch for the season. The ball found my right foot, flicked ahead easily, my Adidas f50 Ballon D'Or boots shone as I glided ahead to collect the ball. Then suddenly it all changed, a tug on my side, a kick that nobody had delivered, and finally with a final step a painful, audible POP!

Crumbling to the ground in absolute agony, looking up to the sky wondering “Why me?” For a moment I was in disbelief before the pain hit. It came in a waves and overwhelmed my other senses. Pounding the ground with my fists and pulling up grass in frustration did not assuage the pain, but it did provide an outlet. Finally after a few moments, I rolled into a sitting position and allowed my leg to be assessed by the medical student who I deemed qualified enough to examine it. By this time a circle had formed around me, I could sense their shared disappointment. The medical student determined that it had not been seriously injured, but I knew better, I had felt it, I had heard it.

No amount of training can prepare you for the overwhelming disappointment of injury. Walking into the doctor's office a few days later I was prepared for the worst. Yet there is always a part that refuses to accept the truth, hopeful that your injury is minor and that you will be fine in a matter of days. After a half hour in an MRI tube, several assessments from a world class doctor, and a battery of x-rays the diagnosis was complete. Complete ACL rupture. When you hear the words on ESPN or Sky Sports they do not carry the same weight, you hear the athlete will be out 6-9 months, but you don't sense their frustration. Hearing those words on the doctor's table was absolutely devastating.

Following those fateful words, the doctor described how a month from that day, they would systematically cripple my right leg in order to rebuild it. One month later my right knee would become a Frankenstein monster made up of metal, screws, an anchor, and my own patellar tendon. It sounded absurd, but it was the only way back onto the field.

In the month preceding the operation, I walked around in a gloomy haze. Food had not been as flavorful, my relationships suffered, I was far from my usual self. I had entirely too much free time to stew on my current predicament. As the day grew closer, I began to question whether the surgery was necessary. I was moving around alright on my own, maybe I could give up the sport I love in favor of some safer alternative, but in my heart I knew I would not be satisfied until I returned to where I belong.

Walking into the hospital with my father by my side, I had mentally prepared myself for the worst pain I have ever experienced. As I answered the same 10 questions repeatedly, spelling my name and giving my birth date to a dozen people that morning. I grew nervous as the impending procedure grew closer. Being wheeled from room to room in an uncomfortable metal bed, in absurd garments that had been shared by unknowable others, I felt unusual. Strangers peered at my naked body behind surgical masks while I unconsciously dreamed of having my teeth pulled out. The intravenous drugs had worked their magic and I awoke wordlessly in another room, in another section of the hospital with my right leg heavily bandaged within the black brace I had been given. I had to be reminded by the attending nurse to breathe.

After receiving instructions on how to care for my leg, which I listened to in a drugged stupor, I was released into the care of my father. I stared down at the black brace that would become equal parts armor and prison. As we drove across the picturesque state of Pennsylvania, I drifted into and out of heavily drugged, dreamless sleep. The journey to a complete recover had begun. The first steps had been with crutches and the shoulder of my father, soon enough they will be on my own.

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players in the world.  He is the highest profile player at Euro 2012, he is the captain of his country, and has won the Ballon D'Or, Champions League, and domestic titles wherever he has gone, yet he is not satisfied.  This is the mark of a great player, yet it is the reason he is one of the most hated and divisive players in the world of football.

Full Highlights Here

His main rival, Lionel Messi, has a contrasting style and attitude that makes him tremendously more endearing to the media and fans.  Ronaldo's direct style and flair are eye catching in a different way than Messi's sprightly movements.  Comparisons between the two players is inevitable with each playing at rival clubs battling for the same league trophy and La Liga scoring titles, but to compare the players individually there is almost no doubt that Ronaldo is the more versatile, complete player.  Possessing superior aerial skills, size, and the ability/willingness to put in a dirty tackle, Ronaldo is simply capable of doing more things on the pitch.  It is Ronaldo's attitude that prevents him from winning over the hearts of those that admire him.

Ronaldo's petulant attitude and frustration were on display for all the world to see yesterday evening.  As Portugal took on the Czech Republic, Ronaldo was once again the center of attention.  He earned several spectacular chances in the first half that included a bicycle kick that sailed wide and an open effort off of a tremendous piece of skill that was parried off the post by Petr Cech in the closing moments of the half.  Ronaldo looked to the sky, seemingly pleading with the football gods to bestow another goal on his prolific scoring record.  Often under these circumstances, Ronaldo's emotions get the better of him and deter his teammates from participating, but with Portugal the squad rallied around their frustrated captain, knowing the victory they deserved was lurking just around the corner.

During this tournament Ronaldo has earned criticism for not being able to find the back of the net, but his efforts have earned him a record as the tournament's most accurate shooter, with 21 shots on target.  The early stages of the second half continued the cycle of frustration for Ronaldo, he had a free kick effort again parried off the post by Petr Cech.  The Czech Republic had begun the game with the upper hand, but after the opening twenty minutes it became a duel between Ronaldo and Cech, with neither man's determination deterred by the other's heroic efforts.  Portugal continued to rain shots on Cech's goal, but the towering keeper was able to turn aside their efforts in turn.  Theodor Gebre Selassie had been tasked with marking Ronaldo, but the tournament standout was incapable of near impossible task.

Eventually Ronaldo earned the goal he sought.  Coming off of a cross from Joao Moutinho, Ronaldo met the ball with a diving header that bounced off the ground and over the hands of Petr Cech.  That single moment was what Portugal needed to win the game they had thoroughly dominated, and it had come at last.  Ronaldo ran to the sideline, pounded his chest, and celebrated with his teammates before looking into the camera and blowing a kiss to his son.  Ronaldo can do these things because he earns every chance through his tireless work rate. His technical ability puts other elite players to shame. He is never afraid to put a team on his back to earn victory.

The Czech Republic was unable to amount much of an offensive attack in the waning moments of the match, and Portugal ran out clear and deserved winners.  Ronaldo is now tied with Mario Gomez, Alan Dzagoev, and Mario Mandzukic as the top scorer of Euro 2012.  Portugal moves on, with the hopes of lifting the European Cup for the first time in their country's history and with Ronaldo at the helm of Os Navegadores they may just do it.

Posted on Friday, June 22, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In spite of winning titles with every team he plays for, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has earned the reputation of being a player that goes missing during big matches.  When the pressure is off is when he seems to shine brightest, yesterday was another example of this.  Following Sweden's elimination from Euro 2012 following consecutive defeats at the hands of Ukraine and England, Zlatan lifted Sweden to victory over France in a game that hand nothing at stake other than pride.

Full Highlights Here

France's manager Laurent Blanc opted to start Yann M'Vila and Hatem Ben Arfa in place of the previously effective Yohan Cabaye and Jeremy Menez.  While the duo turned in satisfactory performances, neither were able to give France the spark they needed in this match.  Karim Benzema played in a deeper role that did not resemble his traditional striker position that he plays so expertly with Real Madrid.  Throughout the match the French struggled to break through the formidable defense that the Swedes provided.

That defense was led by the intimidating, bearded Olof Mellberg who turned in a great defensive performance for Sweden.  He was the focal point of the Swedish defense and he nearly got on the goal sheet, forcing a save from French captain Hugo Lloris.  Martin Olsson effectively shut down Mathieu Debuchy, whose marauding runs up the flank had caused many problems for England and Ukraine.  The Swedish defense earned their shutout through hard work, excellent positioning, and timely clearances.

Christian Wilhelmsson entered the match at halftime, in place of Emir Bajrami, and his introduction signaled the beginning of the Swedish dominance of the second half.  Wilhelmsson along with Martin Olsson combined to make French full back Mathieu Debuchy appear tame, a difficult feat considering he had been heralded as one of the tournament's revelations.  One can't help but think what might have been if Wilhelmsson had been started in the previous two matches.

Zlatan's moment of brilliance came in the 54th minute off a cross from Sebastian Larsson.  After sizing up the attempt, Zlatan leapt into the air and unleashed a furious side volley that Hugo Lloris was helpless to stop.  Better than Balotelli's overhead kick, more spectacular than Captain Kuba's wonderstrike, Zlatan had again proved why he is considered one of the best players in the world.

France's efforts to come back and equalize were repeatedly wasted due to inaccurate finishing, with Ribery, Nasri, and substitute Olivier Giroud all missing opportunities.  Finally in the 90th minute, Sweden put the game beyond doubt thanks to Sebastian Larsson.  Larsson blasted in Samuel Holmen's rebound off the crossbar that came off a beautiful cross from Wilhelmsson.  The impressive display allowed Sweden to leave Ukraine with their pride intact.

France now have to regroup in time to face the reigning champions Spain in their quarterfinal matchup.  France finished in second place in Group D following the loss.  Can Laurent Blanc rally his squad and turn in the performance that will be necessary to defeat Spain? Will the old demons in the French squad stir up again in time to sabotage France's campaign?

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Lex

No comments

It has been a long, hard few months for John Terry.  He has come under fire for alleged racism, been stripped of his England captaincy, red-carded against Barcelona, missed an opportunity to play in the Champions League final, and had his beloved Chelsea win the European title without him.  He earned criticism for wearing his uniform during celebrations (as he was directed to by UEFA), having his date in court pushed back until after the Euros (beyond his control), and been accused of causing potential rifts in the England squad (he hasn't).  Yet for today, he is able to put all of that criticism on the back burner because he is England's hero and savior once again.

Full Time Football

Terry's moment of heroism occurred in the 62nd minute when a long ball reached Anatoliy Yarmolenko (in offside position) who moved the ball to Marko Devic.  Devic's low shot was deflected by Joe Hart, but the ball popped over the diving keeper drifting agonizingly close to the goal line.  As the ball appeared to cross the line, John Terry dove and cleared the ball from danger with an overhead kick.  Despite the protests of the Ukrainian fans and players, the referee continued play and England's Brave John Terry had saved the day.

England was the victim of a similar decision at the 2010 World Cup, when Frank Lampard's shot against Germany looked to have crossed the line.  With FIFA set to vote on the use of instant replay and goalline technology use next month, these two incidents will surely be at the center of the debate.  FIFA President Sepp Blatter has already changed his mind on the issue and now supports the use of technology to assist referees, all it took was a decision to go England's way.

Wayne Rooney signaled his return to the England squad following his two match ban with a goal just minutes into the second half.  After an unimpressive first half display where he missed a prime scoring chance, Rooney headed home the winner for England just three minutes into the second half.  Steven Gerrard's cross was deflected, but somehow bounced through the hands of Andriy Pyatov and onto the balding head of Rooney.  It was Rooney's first major tournament goal for England in 673 minutes.

England again displayed the deep lying formation preferred by the squad since Roy Hodgson's introduction as manager. Their attacking ventures forward in the first half were not as enthusiastic as the Ukrainian attacks, but England's defensive responsibilities were capably led by John Terry.  Scott Parker turned in another tireless performance in the defensive midfield despite nearly conceding a penalty in the first half, he had several crucial blocks that stopped Ukraine from testing Joe Hart.  Steven Gerrard gave another outstanding performance, and was easily Man of the Match after having his cross find Rooney for the goal.

This match also featured the swan song of Andriy Shevchenko's international career.  The Ukrainian captain played his final minutes in major competition for his country, coming on in the 70th minute after being curiously overlooked by Oleg Blokhin.  Shevchenko did not have much impact on the game, his only meaningful contribution coming in the form of a yellow card for a desperate lunge against Ashley Young. It was not a fitting end for the incredible international career that Sheva has had, but at least he was reunited with former teammates Terry and Ashley Cole.

With the victory, England have claimed the top spot of Group D and will now face Italy in the quarterfinals.  Will Hodgson's defensive tactics continue to produce results?

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Lex

No comments

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Spain was unimpressive in their final group stage match against Croatia and needed a late goal from Jesus Navas to defeat their opponent.  Despite having the upper hand and enjoying the majority of possession, the Spanish again lacked killer instinct to put their Croatian opponents away.  Croatia played compact, defensive minded football from the start, but earned several opportunities that nearly produced a winner.  Spain did not have qualification for the quarterfinal wrapped up either and it was surprising to see them play with a lack of urgency while Croatia played a determined match, fighting to the very end.

Full Highlights Here

Fernando Torres danced down the right side to earn Spain's first scoring opportunity of the match, but his near post effort was effectively parried away by goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa who again looked formidable behind the Croatia defense.  Pletikosa was again tested a few minutes later by Sergio Ramos, but the defender's shot from distance skipped along the turf and was easily collected by the keeper.

Croatia nearly found a break through the skill of Mario Mandzukic, the tournament's most accurate player with 3 goals on 4 shots heading into yesterday's match.  Mandzukic raced down the right wing past Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, before Ramos met Mandzukic with a studs up tackle that sent the Croatia striker flying.  Despite Ramos not appearing to touch the ball and contact being made inside the box, referee Wolfgang Stark awarded a corner kick to Croatia.

Croatia were again denied shouts for a penalty when Vedran Corluka looked to have been fouled in the box during a corner kick.  Referee Wolfgang Stark deemed otherwise and awarded the goal kick to Spain, but video shows that Corluka's arm was in a wrestling hold as he was taken to the ground by Sergio Busquets.  It was the second penalty shout denied to Croatia and both decisions certainly changed the game in favor of Spain.

The late stages of the match were an exciting, nervous affair.  Croatia nearly found a winner when Luka Modric curled a ball onto the head of Ivan Rakitic, but the header was parried away by Iker Casillas and cleared from danger.  Croatia had another opportunity on a volley from Ivan Perisic, but again Casillas was in the right position to make the save.

Following the introduction of Cesc Fabregas, Spain appeared more inventive.  It was Fabregas's lofted ball to Andreas Iniesta that eventually earned Spain the goal they sought.  Following Fab's lofted ball, the Croatian defense stopped for what appeared to be offside.  The referee correctly ruled that Iniesta had been onside and he calmly moved the ball over to savior Jesus Navas who emphatically blasted the ball into the empty net.

Despite the considerable defensive efforts of Gordon Schildenfeld and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, Croatia were eliminated from the tournament on that goal.  A 0-0 result would have done the same, but Croatia was unable to convert the opportunities that were presented to them by the defending champions.  Spain now move on and will face the runner-up from Group D on Saturday where they will have to find their finishing touch if they hope to defend their title and make history.   

Posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by Lex

No comments