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

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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

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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

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