Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Interim England manager Stuart Pierce has decided to name Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker as England captain for today’s friendly against The Netherlands.  This selection comes as a shock to many England supporters and neutrals alike, but in the wake of being voted England’s Player of the Year it seems that Pierce has been caught up in the Parker hysteria.

The England captaincy is always an issue among supporters, drawing much more attention than it suitably deserves, but this particular selection has left me confused.  When John Terry was stripped of the captain’s armband for alleged remarks made against Anton Ferdinand, many assumed that Steven Gerrard would take over the role, despite not featuring in Capello’s recent squads.  While Gerrard was being included in the England squad for the match against The Netherlands, Steven Gerrard has been overlooked along with Ashley Cole, Joe Hart, Wayne Rooney, and James Milner for the captaincy.

With only 10 England appearances in his career, thirteen players currently have more experience at the international level than Parker, although he has made more McDonalds commercials than nearly all.  While Parker has enjoyed a renaissance in his career since joining Tottenham this season, he is the same midfielder who spent the majority of his career featuring for a lackluster West Ham side after not being able to break into the Chelsea squad. Even this season, where he has been a regular feature for 3rd place Tottenham and been a central figure on and off the pitch, he has only managed to notch a single assist in 24 starting appearances. His only goal scored came while still playing for West Ham in the Championship.

While Parker has only been named captain for today’s friendly against The Netherlands, this move has fans talking about who will wear the captain’s armband during this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament.  John Terry is likely out of the running due to the previously mentioned allegations, but many more experienced members of the England squad could provide a suitable alternative.

Gerrard with fifteen previous appearances as England captain is the natural choice for captain, but isn’t the only member of the squad to have pulled on the armband for the Three Lions.  Wayne Rooney served as captain for a single friendly match against Brazil, but was unable to inspire a win and has not been selected since. 

Other candidates exist throughout the squad, Ashley Cole has been a regular feature for the England squad for over ten years and is one of the game’s premier left backs, but would be an unlikely choice thanks to his tabloid headlining divorce with Cheryl Tweedy.  He does have a record as an unofficial captain in last February’s friendly against Denmark when Frank Lampard gave him the armband at halftime. Joe Hart and James Milner’s names have both been thrown into the pot of potential England captains, but neither has been given a serious opportunity despite being automatic selections and exemplary players for the squad. 

Milner is the most capped player in England history at the U-21 level and was handed the armband for the final ten minutes of the 2010 match against France.  His tenacious style and record of assists would make him a suitable candidate for the role this summer.  Joe Hart would be a non-traditional selection as a goalkeeper, but England has boasted an undefeated record when Hart puts the gloves on for them.  His on field leadership and positive demeanor could be uplifting to an England squad desperately in need of something to cheer about.  Whether or not he is made the captain, Hart is undoubtedly the first selection as goalkeeper for the upcoming Euro 2012.

Whoever ends up assuming the role of captain will have a lot of work to do during the summer.  With a new manager looming on the horizon it will be their job to navigate England through this time of uncertainty to the success that Three Lions fans desire so much.  With a talented and experienced squad at their disposal, England is poised make a successful run in Euro 2012, but they will first have to sort out their internal issues if they want to hoist any trophies in the near future.

Posted on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 by Lex

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Monday, February 13, 2012

This past weekend was one of those weekends that football fans live for; it had the final of an international tournament, scandal in the Premier League, underdogs fighting to hard earned victories, and saw the 4000th goal in the illustrious history of Real Madrid.  So let’s jump right in:

Manchester United vs. Liverpool

The match between these two great rivals took place with controversy before the match even began.  Police were stationed outside the gates to Old Trafford confiscating a United fanzine that contained a cardboard cutout KKK mask.  These masks were intended to be used to taunt Liverpool fans who have taken it upon themselves to defend the indefensible actions of their striker Luis Suarez.  The real scandal happened just before kickoff during the pregame handshake, when Suarez refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand.  Evra took immediate offense to the snub and was held back by officials, while Rio Ferdinand refused to shake Suarez’ hand. 

Once the pre-match shenanigans were out of the way, both sides proceeded to play a mediocre first half with Glen Johnson missing just wide and Paul Scholes hitting a header right at Reina on the best chances of the half.  Once the second half began that all changed, Steven Gerrard was unable to clear with his header and his flick set up Wayne Rooney for an easily volleyed finish for the game’s opener.  The second came just a couple minutes later when Antonio Valencia expertly stole the ball from Jay Spearing and met Rooney with a ball that was calmly slotted home for his second of the match.  The brace would be enough to see United earn their three points, but not before Luis Suarez put his name on the scoresheet after a Charlie Adam set piece fell to the striker’s feet off a deflection.  Patrice Evra made the most of the occasion by celebrating United’s victory in front of Suarez as the striker exited the pitch.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Queens Park Rangers
Blackburn jumped out to an early lead and were able to extend that lead to three just before halftime thanks to goals from Yakubu, Steven Nzonzi, and an own goal from Nedium Onuoha.  A late brace from Jamie Mackie made the scoreline respectable, but it made no difference as Blackburn ran out deserved winners 3-2. 

Sunderland vs. Arsenal

Sunderland looked to extend their fantastic run of form since Martin O’Neill took over as manager, but it would have to come at the expense of Arsenal who was looking to break into the top 4.  The two sides played an extremely tight affair over the first 70 minutes of the game before James Mclean was able to break the deadlock by taking advantage of a Per Mertesacker stumble, who was substituted with a gruesome ankle injury.  His replacement Aaron Ramsey had an immediate impact on the game when his shot from distance struck both posts and finished behind the goal line to give Arsenal the equalizer.  Beleaguered midfielder Andrei Arshavin was another late substitute who had an impact because his cross led to Thierry Henry’s 92nd minute winner that lifted Arsenal into the top 4 for the first time all season.  A dramatic finish to what is likely to be Henry’s final match with Arsenal (at least for this season) as he returns to New York on Thursday to begin preseason training with the New York Red Bulls.

Chelsea vs. Everton

Chelsea continued their slump on Saturday during their travels to Goodison Park, and the London side saw themselves immediately behind thanks to a goal just 5 minutes from the start by Steven Pienaar.  Chelsea was largely wasteful with their opportunities and several mistakes led to prime opportunities for Everton to extend their lead.  Both teams were unable to find the net and the testy match continued until the 70th minute when Denis Stracqualursi scored the goal that put the match out of reach for Everton.  The hard earned win allowed Everton to climb in to the top 10 for the first time all season.  This marks the third time in three seasons that Everton has beaten Chelsea at Goodison Park.

The lackluster string of performances by Chelsea led to chairman Roman Abramovich calling the squad in on Sunday day off to address their lack of satisfactory results.  The chairman addressed the squad and laid out his expectations for the remainder of the season which included a top 4 finish in the Premier League and an impressive showing in the Champions League.  Abramovich has displayed an increased level of patience for new manager Andre Villas-Boaz, but has chosen to take this opportunity to let the club know their performances need improvement.  While many are quick to point fingers, the club will surely enjoy a boost this week with the return of both Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou from the African Cup of Nations.

Swansea City vs. Norwich City
This matchup between overachieving newly promoted sides had plenty of entertainment for the neutral supporter.  Swansea jumped out to an early 1-0 lead thanks to a curling effort from Danny Graham.  Swansea held the lead for the remainder of the first half, but their luck ran out in the 47th minute when Grant Holt headed home an overhead kick from Elliot Ward.  Swansea’s bad luck continued when just four minutes later Anthony Pilkington’s shot took a deflection and found its way into the back of the net.  Grant Holt found the net again in the 63rd minute to put the game out of reach, earning Norwich the 3 points, but not before Danny Graham added an 87th minute penalty to make the scoreline respectable.

Bolton Wanderers vs. Wigan Athletic
In a matchup between the league’s cellar dwellers, both teams were hoping to earn three points that would go a long way towards staving off relegation.  Wigan was able to jump out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a header from Captain Gary Caldwell off of a corner just before halftime.  Bolton responded in the 67th minute when Mark Davies blasted a shot from outside the area to equalize.  The deadlock only lasted 10 minutes because Wigan found a winner coming from Jame McArthur’s rebound off of a Adam Bogdan save.  Three hard earned points for the Latics that could be very important at the end of the season. 

Fulham vs. Stoke City
Two first half helped Fulham sink visiting Stoke City. Pavel Pogrebnyak scored his first goal in the Premier League for the game’s opener and Thomas Sorenson was unlucky to have a Clint Demsey blast rattle off the bar, off his back, and into the goal.  Ryan Shawcross pinned one back for Stoke City off a headed corner, but Fulham was able to hold on for the win.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Newcastle United

This matchup was expected to be one of the weekend’s most competitive matches, but a sublime performance from Emmanuel Adebayor was the key to Spurs’ thrashing of Newcastle.  Adebayor tallied four assists on the day and added a goal to lift Tottenham to their 5-0 win.  The first goal came off an Adebayor cross that trickled across the goal mouth for Benoit Assou-Ekotto to finish.  The second came off a perfectly placed cross from Adebayor that found Saha alone in space for the finish.  Adebayor then settled the ball to Saha who added his second for the game’s third goal.  Adebayor then jumped on his own rebound and moved the ball to Niko Kranjcar who slotted home the 4th goal.  Saha headed on a ball that was volleyed home by Adebayor for the final tally of the day.  It was a great night for Spurs fans and one that Newcastle supporters will be looking to put behind them.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. West Bromwich Albion
Wolves were on the receiving end of a 5-1 thrashing from West Brom which directly resulted in the sacking of manager Mick McCarthy.  West Brom opened the scoring with a strike from Peter Odemwingie that found its way between the legs of goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.  Wolves were able to level the match just before halftime when Steven Fletcher placed a shot over the outstretched hands of Ben Foster.  West Brom came out after halftime with a fury and added 4 second half goals.  The first came from Jonas Olsson after a scramble in the box following a corner.  Another goal mouth scramble and a back heel pass allowed Peter Odemwingie to net his second of the game for West Brom’s third goal.  Keith Andrews added the fourth West Brom goal before Peter Odemwingie completed his hat trick with an easy finish off of a cross from James Morrison.

Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
Villa Park was the setting for a match that was equal parts boring and uneventful.  Manchester City won 1-0 thanks to a 62nd minute hooking shot from Joleon Lescott.  The win means City is back at the top spot of the table, but I honestly wish they had done it in a more entertaining fashion.

That’s all for this post, Adebayor gets the background for his super Saturday display.  More to come on the African Cup of Nations Final and Real Madrid’s 4000th club goal. 

Posted on Monday, February 13, 2012 by Lex

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Africa Cup of Nations is a tournament that finds itself at odds with the football calendar and is often overlooked because of this.  Players are recalled from their club sides to represent their countries on a different continent well away from the watchful eyes of the Western media.  This particular tournament has been the scene for some beautiful football, some ugly football, and the two sides meeting in the final are each struggling to overcome history to win the Cup.

The two finalists for the Africa Cup of Nations, Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire had very similar paths to the final.  Zambia overcame the tournament favorites Ghana thanks to a brilliantly placed shot from Emmanuel Mayuka and a diving penalty stop from Kennedy Mweene, to finish 1-0 and secure their place in the final.  Shortly after Zambia’s 1-0 win, Cote D’Ivoire secured their place in the final after a close match with Mali finished 1-0 in their favor thanks to a breathtaking run and finish by Gervinho.

The two finalists are also linked by their respective links to tragedy.  Zambia has been struggling to bring closure to the 1993 air disaster that claimed the lives of 18 national team footballers, 4 coaches, and a chairman of the Zambian FA on their way to a match in Senegal.  While the honored dead were buried in “Heroes Acre” just outside of the national team stadium in Lusaka, an emergency squad was assembled for upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.  The Chipolopolo (copper bullets) reached the finals of the qualifying tournament and even managed to take a 1-0 lead against Nigeria before being defeated.  The squad returned home as heroes, while this current squad hopes to honored in similar fashion by returning home champions.

Cote D’Ivoire has been a nation in turmoil throughout recent history.  In 2006, their qualification for the World Cup was enough to convince their President Laurent Gbagbo to resume peace talks to heal a nation divided by civil war.  An agreement was reached and elections were held that had President Gbagbo retain his seat of power.  Trouble again rose in 2010 when presidential elections held by the Ivoirian Independent Elections Committee declared the winner Alassane Ouattara over President Gbagbo.  Gbagbo refused to recognize the legitimacy of the election and was sworn into another five year term the following day.
Gbagbo’s claim immediately divided the country while protesters took to the streets to demonstrate their outrage.  Prime Minister Guillaume Soro turned in his resignation while the African Union held talks moderated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.  Sporadic violence swept the country over the following months, leading to the deaths of thousands of civilians and the human rights abuse of many more.  

While governments around the world called for Laurent Gbagbo to step down, he remained holed up with his forces in the presidential palace.  Eventually, on April 11, 2010, a concerted effort between the United Nations, France, and Ouattara forces stormed the presidential palace and arrested Gbagbo.  The palace and presidency was then handed over to Ouattara and Soro, who began the task of rebuilding the severely damaged country with the help of a council headed by former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, religious leaders, regional leaders, and Chelsea/Cote D’Ivoire striker Didier Drogba.  Legislative elections were held on December 11, 2011, while Gbagbo awaits trial in The Hague.

The problems facing these two nations may be different, but both nations are proud of their footballing history and rally around their respective squads.  Zambia seeks their first Africa Cup of Nations victory, Cote D’Ivoire hopes to earn their second while giving their people a much needed reason to celebrate.  Ivoirians are already seeing the benefits that football can bring to a nation thanks to the Didier Drogba Foundation, whose goal is to bring education and health care to the children of Cote D’Ivoire with the aspirations of constructing a hospital in the capital of Abidjan.  So far the foundation has succeeded in raising funds for the Red Cross and orphanages throughout the country.

From a football standpoint there is a great deal between these two teams.  Zambia have certainly overachieved, reaching the finals for only the third time in their country's history.  Zambia was ranked 71st overall by FIFA before the tournament began, while Cote D'Ivoire boasted the continent's top ranking of 18th overall.  Zambia is led by their captain Christopher Katongo, who plays abroad for Henan Construction in China.  Their best known player is probably Emmanuel Mayuka who plays for Swiss club Young Boys.

Cote D'Ivoire on the other hand are considered favorites heading into Sunday's final in Libreville, Gabon.  Les Elephants have not been scored upon so far in the tournament and have won every game en route to the Final.  Boasting international stars such as Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Gervinho, and Salomon Kalou, the pressure rests on these players to bring home the title for the second time.

Whatever the outcome may be this weekend, both nations can be proud of the performances their teams have turned in throughout this tournament.  Once again the unifying power of football has given those who join the beautiful game another reason to celebrate its splendor. 

Posted on Thursday, February 09, 2012 by Lex

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

One of the reasons I love football is that it is played in every country in the world, to the point that it could be considered a cultural universal.  Like music, art, and cuisine, football often is a display of a country’s culture and reflective of their society as a whole.  For the past year, Egypt has been involved in an internal struggle as it attempts to grow out of the tyranny and oppression of a dictator into a fledgling democracy.

Most are familiar with the scenes of protests and riots taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  For months this has been the scene of protests, first taking place against oppressive dictator Hosni Mubarak and now against the military regime that has taken charge of the country during the interim ruling period.  These protests and clashes have now spilled over to the football pitch, as yesterday saw one of the most violent football related disasters in recent memory. 

Port Said was the scene for yesterday’s match between defending Egyptian champions Al-Ahly and their rivals Al Masry.  The two have a history of rivalry with a fair share of clashes happening between the rival groups of fans.  Al-Ahly struck first in the match with an early goal from Brazilian import Fabio Junior in the 11th minute.  The visiting Al-Ahly fans unveiled a banner that insulted their Al Masry hosts.  This unveiling led to the first conflict in the stands, which led to the match being stopped for several minutes until order was restored.

As the match continued, Al Masry was able to mount a dramatic second half comeback against their Cairo rivals.  A brace from midfielder Momen Zakaria gave Al Masry a lead in the 83rd minute and a 92nd minute goal from Abdoulaye Cisse gave Al Masry the 3-1 victory.  After the final whistle blast signaled the end of the match, the conflict between groups of fans continued and spilled onto the pitch.

Just after the final whistle, fans began flooding onto the pitch attempting to attack Al-Ahly players and fans.  Al-Ahly fans quickly exited the pitch to their locker rooms and many of their fans attempted to follow, as a small group of riot police attempted to protect the group was quickly overwhelmed.  More and more fans continued spilling onto the pitch and Ultras began targeted attacks on Al-Ahly fans.  According to some reports these Ultras carried weapons such as knives, metal bars, and fireworks.

Ultras have played a crucial role in the Egyptian uprising thus far.  They were one of the first groups to stand up to the brutal military police and were in some cases responsible for protecting protesters in Tahrir Square.  Ultras are experienced in clashes with police which is one of the reasons they took responsibility for protecting the protesters. 

During this particular clash, riot police could be witnessed in several videos standing idle while fans around them were attacked.  Bloody bodies could be seen scattered across the field, with deaths being reported due to stab wounds, blows to the head, suffocation with scarves, and due to trampling by fans attempting to escepe.  The death total as it currently stands varies between sources from 72-82 with over 1000 reported wounded, making it the worst football related disaster in over 15 years.  Some of those dead included members of the security forces in charge of protecting supporters.  Al-Ahly star Mohamed Aboutrika expressed his outrage on Al-Ahly satellite television network after the incident saying “People here are dying, and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war.” “Is life this cheap?”

Locker rooms were transformed into makeshift emergency rooms treating the dying and wounded, while rioters set fire to parts of the stadium.  Military helicopters and vehicles were mobilized to transport Al-Ahly fans and the wounded back to Cairo, while fans and protesters assembled at train stations in Cairo to await the return of fans.  Protests took place over night and military rulers have declared a three day mourning period for the lives lost during the incident.

Many are admonishing the lack of intervention by police forces on the scene for being responsible for such an incident to take place.  General Marwan Mustapha of the Egyptian interior ministry has said “Our policemen have tried to contain them, but not engage.”  He also said “There were organized groups in the crowds that purposely provoked police all through the match and escalated the violence and stormed the field after the final whistle.” So far over 50 arrests have been made in connection to the riot.

As a result of these attacks, Al-Ahly rivals Zamalek abandoned their match in Cairo midgame in a display of solidarity for those lost at the riot.  The Egyptian Premier League has suspended matches indefinitely and it has been reported that leaders of the Egyptian FA have been sacked.  A moment of silence was called before debate began in Egyptian Parliament today and the Confederation of African Football said a similar tribute would be made before African Cup of Nations semi-finals this weekend.

Posted on Thursday, February 02, 2012 by Lex

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February 1, the day after millions of fans return to their normal lives after spending 24 hours glued to their televisions and computer screens.  With the outline of blue and yellow scrolling bars of Sky Sports etched in their peripheral vision, most supporters ended January with an underwhelming feeling of disappointment.  Many of the major transfer speculation turned out to be false, leaving many feeling a bit empty come Wednesday morning.  

There were no blockbuster deadline day signings; the biggest signings came from Queens Park Rangers who spent a combined £9 million on strikers Djibril Cisse and Bobby Zamora.  Everton was surprisingly active during the transfer window, signing highly coveted Rangers striker Nikica Jelavic and getting Steven Pienaar to return to the Toffees on a loan deal from Tottenham.  Bolton used their transfer fee from selling Gary Cahill to Chelsea to secure the services of American Tim Ream and Marvin Sordell from Watford. 

Chelsea was the most active of the top 5 clubs in the January window, signing Bolton’s Gary Cahill and Genk’s Kevin De Bruyne.  After failing to sign De Bruyne during the summer transfer window, Chelsea finally got their man, but promptly loaned him back to Genk to finish out the season.  Manchester United swiped Manchester City’s Swiss U-17 captain Frederic Veseli, while City brought in Chilean midfielder David Pizarro from Roma.  The club also cut ties with “the English Taraabt” Ravel Morrison, who left Old Trafford for West Ham for a fee of £600,000. 

Liverpool also only made a single signing with their move for Wrexham and Wales U-19 keeper Danny Ward.  Tottenham made several moves during the transfer window closing, loaning out Verdan Corluka (Bayer Leverkusen), Steven Pienaar (Everton), and Sebastien Bassong (Wolves).   Spurs also sold out of favor Russian striker Roman Pavluchenko to Lokomotiv Moscow for a reported fee of €11 million.

Arsenal was shockingly inactive during the deadline day, with their only deal coming from loaning out their winger Ryo Miyaichi to Bolton.  For a team lacking serious depth in midfield and a desperate need for full backs, Arsenal are also rumored to have Andre Arshavin’s exit looming on the horizon.  After several public statements from the club regarding the availability of funds, Arsene Wenger may be forced to spend in the upcoming summer window if he wants to keep Robin Van Persie, after Barcelona expressed interest in the Dutch striker.

Martin O’Neill has continued Sunderland’s transition under his guidance by signing Greek center back Sotoris Krygiakos and bringing in Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge on loan.  These two signings should bolster the Black Cats defense with little risk involved.  Their Tyneside rivals Newcastle were inactive except for their signing of Papisse Cisse from Freiberg.  Leeds brought in a pair of players with midfielder Jonny Howson and defender Ryan Bennett coming in from Leeds and Peterborough respectively.  Swansea scooped up former Manchester City academy player Curtis Obeng in their lone deadline day move.  Blackburn made some waves by signing Marcus Olsson (Halmstads) and Bradley Orr (QPR), while letting Keith Andrews go to West Brom on a free transfer.

Fulham managed to snap up Australian teenager Ryan Williams for £6 million, but the Cottagers were not finished yet and they also signed Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak for a fee of £3 million.  Aston Villa and Stoke City were both relatively inactive at the deadline, with the only permanent move between the two clubs seeing Shane Lowry shipped off to Millwall from Birmingham.  Wigan’s lone import brought Jean Beausejour to the Latics from Portsmouth.   West Brom also managed to bring in Liam Ridgewell on a loan deal from Birmingham to join their signing of Keith Andrews. 

To be honest with you I can’t believe I wrote all that. This transfer window has been one of the more disappointing in recent memory, with no major signings taken place.  The lack of transfers to big English clubs during the January window could set the stage for some blockbuster signings in the summer.  Will Hazard, Neymar, Hamsik, Cavani, or Ganso make their way to the Premier League? Will Carlos Tevez find himself a permanent home? Is Arsene Wenger allergic to fax machines? I guess we will have to wait for the summer to find out.

Since this article is sort of boring, entertain yourself with this awesome mini documentary about the smallest league in the world. 

Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2012 by Lex

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