Tag Archives: EPL

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense - The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield - Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction - Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Manchester United – Schalke

For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time.  Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1.  But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.

This year’s Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer.  Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog.  What more could you ask for?  As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I’m just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.

Schalke, the surprise team of the season, look to continue their magical run against Manchester United.

The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season’s surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer.  It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!

Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season.  Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th.  While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League.  Since Ralf Rangnick‘s appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch.  Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).

While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen.  The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season.  Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall).  Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn’t played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils.  His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans’ hopes.

On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing.  The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona).  The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United’s demise - the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent.  It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.  Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn’t lost in the Champions League.

Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England.  Both evergreens are having excellent seasons.  Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League.  The Red Devils aren’t just getting contributions from their veterans.  Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League.  Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.

This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League.  Check out this post on the Red Devils’ history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic.  With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.

Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don’t win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect.  I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy?  Leave  a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.


Top Ten – English Transfer Window Signings

 

Fernando Torres looks to help the Blues push for the Premier League title.

The dust has settled on what was a crazy January transfer window.  One of the biggest names in world football switched teams, and several up-and-coming players will be plying their trade in new locales.  Obviously, much attention has been focused on the move of Fernando Torres to Chelsea, but there was a lot more action.  What were the ten best signings in the English Premier League during the transfer window?

1o. Curtis Davies – Davies moves across the city from Aston Villa to Birmingham City.  He brings the Blues a strong replacement for the injured Scott Dann, who had become a rock in central defense.  Davies, who missed time last season due to a shoulder injury, fell out of favor with Gérard Houllier and couldn’t crack the 4-deep center back rotation at Villa.  I don’t really understand why Davies wasn’t given the opportunity given Villa’s poor performance early in the season.  Villa’s loss, both in terms of the player and the nearly £8 million difference between investment and sale, is City’s gain.

9. Andy Carroll – Newcastle born and raised, the young forward left his hometown club to move to Liverpool.  While it seems clear that Carroll didn’t want to leave St. James Park, Newcastle United had no choice but to take the ludicrous £35 million offer the Reds threw their way.  Carroll would be higher on this list if he had more Premier League experience and if he weren’t out with a thigh injury.  While Carroll has shown a lot of promise, he has only played in 33 EPL games, though he has scored 14 goals.  It seems to me that Liverpool pair a premium for Carroll simply because he is English.  How else do you explain the fact that Carrol cost £12 million more than Luis Suárez (who will make an appearance further up this list). If Carroll continues to develop he could be an even better signing, but I find the price Liverpool paid a bit tough to justify.

8. Jean Makoun/Michael Bradley – I know that this is a bit of a cop-out, combining two players as one signing, but Aston Villa did a lot to strengthen the center of their midfield with the £6 million capture of the Cameroonian midfielder from Olympique Lyonnais and the loan of the American midfielder from Borussia Monchengladbach. Makoun brings composure on the ball, good visions, and the knack for scoring timely goals.

Watch this video of his goal against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.

Like Makoun, Bradley is an energetic box-to-box midfielder.  Bradley was a goal scoring machine in his time with SC Heerenveen, and has shown a touch for scoring with ‘Gladbach. He was one of the stars of the U.S. team at the 2010 World Cup and should provide Villa with an excellent partner to Makoun.

7. Sully Muntari/Stéphane Sessègnon – Another combination, but Sunderland strengthened their attack and strength in midfield with these two signings.  Muntari, moving on loan from Inter Milan, will bring steel to the midfield.  He will provide both good vision (as shown by his ball over the top to fellow Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan against Stoke City)  and energy in the center of the park.

Sessègnon, who had fallen out of favor at Paris Saint-Germain, with provide the Black Cats with some creativity out of the midfield or in a withdrawn forward position.  The Benin international played well against Stoke and should help Gyan keep the attack going while Danny Wellbeck and Fraizer Campbell recover from injury.

6. David Bentley – The supremely talented, though somewhat enigmatic winger moves on loan from Tottenham to Birmingham in a bid to find regular playing time.  Bentley, who started his career with Arsenal, but made his biggest impact with Blackburn, has loads of talent but can’t seem to find the pitch on a regular basis. In his first match, he won man-of-the-match for his work against Aston Villa. He scored his first goal for the Blues against Coventry City in the FA Cup. If Bentley can keep up this form, he will certainly help the Blues keep their place in the EPL.

5. Edin Džeko – On talent alone, the Bosnian striker would be higher on this list, but questions remain on how he will fit into the squad on the pitch.  He has been one of the most sought after players in world soccer over the last several years.  He was the engine that drove the attack for VfL Wolfsburg in his time in Germany.  The reason he lands at #5 is due to questions on how he will fit into the mercenary side at Manchester City.  With Carlos Tévez an ever-present in the lineup, and  Manchester City and Roberto Mancini preferring a 4-3-3 formation where does Džeko fit? Tévez prefers playing in the center of the park, and Džeko does as well.  Neither seems a natural fit on the wing.  Will City change their lineup? They could shift to a 4-4-1-1 with David Silva sliding back to a left-sided midfield spot, with Tévez in a withdrawn forward role and Džeko up top.  If City find a way to truly incorporate Džeko he would have to move up this list. Plus, not to knock Andy Carroll, he was nearly £8 million cheaper.

4. Fernando Torres – El Niño lands at #4 due to similar concerns expressed in my critique of the Edin Džeko move.  Torres is undoubtedly talented, and brings an amazing goal scoring record in the Premier League to Stamford Bridge (65 goals in 102 games).  However, where does the Spaniard fit into a Chelsea side with so much (volatile) attacking talent?  Nicolas Anelka will not stand for being dropped from the first XI, nor will Didier Drogba. While Ankelka has slotted in well on the wing, neither Drogba nor Torres are a natural fit on the wing.  Perhaps a 4-3-1-2 formation with one of the forward occupying a withdrawn role would work the best, but it remains to be seen if Carlo Ancelotti will alter his system.

3. David Luiz – The Blues make a second appearance on the list, this time for signing the dynamic Brazilian defender for up to £26.5 million from Benfica.  With Chelsea clearly in need of defensive help, Luiz was an excellent signing.  He was a huge part of a rock-solid defense as Benfica conceded just 20 goals on their way to the Portuguese title last season.  He is versatile (he can play left back or center back) and is strong in the air.  At just 23, Luiz has time to grow into an even better player and will a rock in Chelsea’s defense for years. Plus, how could you not like this guy, he has some of the best hair in English soccer!

2. Luis Suárez – Suárez is probably best known in America for his handball against Ghana during the 2010 World Cup.  The handball, which looked stupid at the time, saved La Celeste from defeat at the hands of the Black Stars.  However, people would be remiss if they aren’t aware of the young strikers immense talent.  The Uruguay international has a history of scoring goals (111 goals in 159 appearances for Ajax), something Liverpool will need after the departure of Torres.  He made a positive debut for the Reds, getting credit for what was certainly an own goal for Andy Wilkinson of Stoke.  Costing less than Andy Carroll and with a much stronger track record, Suárez is the best signing of the transfer window for Liverpool.

1. Darren Bent – Darren Bent is a goal scorer.  Plain and simple.  Aston Villa needed a player up top who could put the ball in the back of the net, and they got that when they signed Bent from Sunderland for £18 million.  Bent, who scored 24 Premier League goals just two season ago, provides Villa with proven finisher.  Many thought Villa paid too much for Bent, but Bent proved his worth scoring the game winner against Manchester City (his debut for Villa).  When you consider the cost of the other forwards on this list, Bent certainly looks like he could be a bargain.  Villa is fighting to move into the top half of the table, and stay away from the relegation zone,  and Bent and their midfield signings will help Villa realize that goal.

Other signings that merit mention are Robbie Keane‘s move to West Ham, a team that sorely needs a goal scorer, and Blackpool‘s signings of Andy Reid and James Beattie – two players who should help the Seasiders keep their place in the Premier League.

Agree with my selections, disagree, leave a comment.

Champions League Preview: Group H

Finally we have come to the last group in our Champions League preview.  I must thank the UEFA schedulers for placing the back half of the draw’s first matches on Wednesday, which bought me more time to complete all of the previews.  While half of the opening matches have already been played, don’t forget to take a look at all the other group previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F and Group G.

Group H continues the pattern established by many of the other groups.  One team that is the prohibitive favorite (Arsenal), and several teams (Shakhtar Donetsk, Partizan Belgrade, and Braga) that are likely competing for second place.

Despite rumors that Cesc Fàbregas was rumored to be leaving the Emirates, he is still with the Gunners and will lead them on their quest for silverware.

Arsenal F.C. - One of the most storied clubs in English football, Arsenal have seen a bit of a hardware drought over the last 5 seasons.  Their last major trophy was the FA Cup in 2005.  While the North London side remain perennial contenders, they have not been able to break the recent Chelsea-Manchester United duopoly at the top of the English Premier League.  In addition, there has been only moderate success in the Champions League (advancing to at least the quarterfinals every year since 2007, and almost always advancing from their group), with their best finish being runners-up in 2006.

This year’s squad resembles the United Nations, with players from 17 different countries.  Manager Arsène Wenger is highly respected and seems to be able to get the best out of players (look no further than former Gunner Thierry Henry).  Wenger dipped into the transfer market this summer to sign Moroccan forward Marouane Chamakh, and a pair of French defenders (Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci).  Chamakh address the lack of depth at the forward position that was exposed when Robin Van Persie missed significant time with injuries last season.  With the departure of Eduardo to Group H rivals Shakhtar, the Gunners couldn’t stand pat.  Squillaci and Koscielny fill the hole created by the departure of William Gallas, who never really fit in at the Emirates. The one weakness that Arsenal did not address was goalkeeper.  Manuel Almunia and his two Polish deputies are just not good enough to lead a team to the Champions League trophy.  If Arsenal are going to make a deep run they will need to complete the rumored signing of Mark Schwarzer or sign another keeper.

While no team can match the high-flying start Chelsea has put together, Arsenal has seen a great deal of success in the early EPL season.  With a 3-1-0 record, the Gunners sit 2nd in the table, 2 points adrift of the Blues.  This year’s squad has the look of contenders in the EPL, but it might be too tough to catch the buzz saw that is Chelsea.

Arsenal are the clear favorites in this group.  With a history of advancing deep into the tournament, a manager that is one of the world’s best, and a beautiful brand of attacking football, Arsenal should win Group H with little trouble.

Former Gunner Eduardo, now with Shakhtar Donetsk, will seek to oust his former teammates.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk – The 2009 UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar have become a fixture in the Champions League over the last decade.  Consistently in the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar are looking to advance from the group stage for the first time.  Thanks to the rise in competitiveness of the Ukrainian League, Shakhtar were able to qualify directly for the group stage of this year’s competition.  In year’s past it had taken at least one round of qualifying for Shakhtar to make the group stage.

Shahktar’s current squad is made primarily of Ukrainian and Brazilian players, with players from the former Soviet Union making up the bulk of the rest.  Perhaps the two biggest signings of the summer were the aforementioned capture of Eduardo from Arsenal, and the signing of young, Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barcelona.  The squad, captained by veteran, Croatian midfielder Darijo Srna certainly has the talent to make an impact in the Champions League.

On the domestic front, the Ukrainian league has completed 9 rounds, and Shakhtar sit atop the table.  With a 7-1-1 record, Shakhtar are 2 points ahead of rival Dynamo Kyiv.

Following their victory in the 2009 UEFA Cup, it is clear that Shakhtar need to be taken seriously.  In their last trip to the group stage, in 2008-2009, Shakhtar finished 3-0-3 and narrowly missed advancing.  This season, they might top that performance. Given this composition of this group, Shakhtar are in a good position to advance to the knockout round.

Braga are making their first Champions League appearance. Will they find beginner's luck?

S.C. Braga - A truly unfancied side from Portugal, Braga stormed out of the gates last season and found themselves atop the Portuguese Liga early in the 2009-2010 season.  Ultimately, Benfica finished atop the table, but Braga had secured their first trip to the Champions League.  After dispatching Celtic and Sevilla on the way to the group stage, it is clear Braga have come to play.

Braga was relatively quiet on the transfer front, and why not, the team had its most successful season last year.  The current squad consists almost entirely of Brazilian and Portuguese players, with one of my favorite names in soccer: George Lucas (wouldn’t the Imperial March from Star Wars be great intro music for him and his teammates?)

While Braga had been hanging around the top 4 or 5 for the better part of this decade, they were finally able the break into the top 2.  The Portuguese Liga is one of the most top-heavy leagues in European soccer, being dominated by just three teams: FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP.  The fact that the plucky side from the north of Portugal displaced one of the “Big Three” is refreshing. This season sees Braga sitting 4th in the table, at 2-1-1.  With the only  loss coming to table-topping Porto, Braga should be happy with their record heading into their first Champions League group stage match.

Braga certainly have the talent to compete in this group, but their lack of experience at this level could be a handicap.  In a group where the other three entrants have all played multiple seasons in the Champions League, you have to wonder if Braga will be able to put together the consistency necessary to make it to the knockout round.

Partizan have been extremely successful domestically, can they transfer their success to the Champions League?

FK Partizan – Easily one of the most storied clubs in Serbia, Partizan are making their third straight appearance in the Champions League, but their first group stage appearance since 2003-2004.  Interestingly, Partizan have the same number of runner-up finishes as Arsenal, despite being from a much smaller league, and being far less known.

The current rosters consists almost entirely of Serbian players, many of them new to the squad.  Partizan were busy during the transfer window, bringing in 19 new players and sending 13 players packing.  One has to wonder if that much change to a squad that is the three-time defending champions of the Serbian League is wise.  No names jump out as me as being major additions or subtractions, so perhaps Partizan will not lose chemistry and moment with such a high turnover.

If the results from the domestic league are any indication, the roster turnover has not hurt Partizan.  With 4 wins from 4 matches, Partizan sit atop the table with 12 points and a +8 goal differential.  If Partizan continues to play at such a high level, the Belgrade side just might win its 4th league title in a row.

Partizan are a bit of an unknown. While the team has the tradition, the current squad has not been together long enough.  Also, Partizan has been absent from the group stage for 7 seasons.  Will this lack of experience hurt Partizan?  Partizan’s last trip to the group stage was not a good one, as they finished last in their group with a 0-3-3 record.  I suspect the Serbian side will acquit themselves better this time around, though more than a Europa League spot might be a pipe dream.

Predictions: Arsenal outclass the rest of the group and win easily.  Shahktar finish second to become the first Ukrainian side to advance past the group stage.

Champions League Preview: Group F

The Champions League previews continue at a fast and furious pace due to my slacking. With Group E previewed Friday, we move on to Group F. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of my previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D.

Group F, with Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Žilina, has the chance to provide some interesting soccer matches.  While Chelsea are the clear favorites, especially when considering their form in the early part of the EPL season (4 wins, 17 goals), the rest of the group should prove competitive.

Didier Drogba has been on fire to start the EPL season, scoring 4 goals and dishing out 4 assits in just 4 games.

Chelsea F.C. - Chelsea, last season’s Premier League champions, have during this decade become perennial contenders for both the EPL and Champions League titles.  The runners-up (to Manchester United) in 2008, the Blues are looking to finally win the big one this season.  Always the stated goal of owner, Roman Abramovich, this could be the year that Chelsea break through and take home the move coveted trophy in club soccer.

Last season, Chelsea exited the Champions League at an early stage (by their high standards), losing to eventual champions Inter in the round of 16.  Each of the previous three seasons saw Chelsea make it to at least the semifinals.  In an effort to get themselves back to the semifinals, Chelsea undertook an extreme team makeover.  While their only major signings of the summer were Brazilian midfielder Ramires (from Benfica) and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun (from Liverpool), Chelsea allowed several older players to leave the team.  Gone are Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. Chelsea allowed these players to leave in an effort to get cheaper and younger.

In the EPL, Chelsea have been in top form from the beginning of the season.  With consecutive 6-0 victories to start the season (against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan), Chelsea’s offense is firing on all cylinders.  Prior to conceding against West Ham United in the 85 minute, Chelsea hadn’t given up a single goal.  While these stats are impressive, Chelsea has had a bit of a cupcake buffet to start the season.  The best team Chelsea has played thus far (Stoke City) finished 11th last season in the EPL.

Chelsea are clearly the favorites in this group.  The team has been in fine form to start the season.  While Marseille could trouble the Blues, especially in France, Chelsea should dominate this group.

André-Pierre Gignac, one of Marseille's biggest signings over the summer, should add fire power to an already potent offense.

Olympique de Marseille – Marseille, winners of Ligue 1 last season, have in each of the past three seasons made it to the group stage of the Champions League.  In each of those seasons, the French side has been unable to make it to the knockout rounds, finishing third all three times.  Marseille will look to improve upon that showing, in a group where they have a chance to finish second.

Marseille have enjoyed their recent resurgence and with the nearly unlimited funds from the estate of French billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, they should be able to bring in talent to keep them at the top of Ligue 1.  In an effort to boost  what was one of the most prolific attacks in French soccer, Marseille imported French international André-Pierre Gignac (from Toulouse FC) and Loïc Rémy (from OGC Nice).  As if those additions weren’t enough, it has recently come to light that Marseille attempted to buy Didier Drogba from Chelsea.  The only major exit from the squad was tempestuous winger, Hatem Ben Arfa.  I feel that the subtraction of Ben Arfa, who has been a distraction virtually everywhere he has played, could actually help Marseille.

While Marseille enjoyed a lot of success domestically last season, this year’s campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.  Manager Didier Deschamps and sporting director José Anigo had a falling out over the transfer strategy, and the team has gotten off to a 1-1-2 start.  Marseille started the season with a 2-1 loss to SM Caen at Stade Vélodrome, followed by a 3-2 loss away to Valenciennes FC.  It seems that they have found a way to bounce back, defeating Lorient in Marseille and drawing with Bordeaux.  Marseille will have to find their form quickly, as they host Spartak on 9/15.

Marseille certainly have the firepower to compete with many teams in Europe, though to ask them to top Chelsea might be asking too much.  While pipping Chelsea to the top spot might be out of the question, a second place finish and a trip to the knockout rounds is certainly within Marseille’s grasp.

Aiden McGeady was Spartak's biggest summer signing. Expect the Irishman to star for the Russians.

Spartak Moscow – Spartak enter this season looking to win their first league title since 2001.  During the early years of the Russian Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning 9 championships in the first ten seasons.  Since then, their best finish was last season when they were runners-up to Rubin Kazan. Spartak are making their second recent appearance in the Champions League group stage.  Their prior appearance, during the 2006-2007 season, saw Spartak finish third in their group behind Inter and Bayern Munich. The Russians will be looking to improve upon that result this season.

As with fellow Russian entrants, Rubin, Spartak was extremely active in the transfer market.  With over a dozen players joining and at least that many leaving, Spartak has dramatically reshaped its team.  The biggest signing was the capture of Aiden McGeady from Celtic.  The Irish midfielder will add a steady, attacking presence to the Spartak midfield and should significantly upgrade the club.  With McGeady providing service for Brazilian forward Welliton, Spartak should see their offense improve.

The Russian Premier League has a different calendar than most of the rest of Europe, starting in early spring and ending in November.  Due to this schedule, Spartak have already played 19 games in the domestic league.  With an 8-5-6 record, Spartak sit 5th in the Russian Premier League and look likely to miss out on Champions League football for next season.  With this in mind, expect Spartak to make the most of this opportunity and provide some tough competition to Marseille for the second position.

While I do love the addition of McGeady, I ust don’t see Spartak having the fire power to finish in the top two.  Playing in the Luzhniki Stadium can be intimidating for visiting clubs, but Chelsea played Manchester United there in the 2008 title game.  Spartak will likely finish third in this group and ear their way into the Europa League.

MŠK Žilina are just the 2nd Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage.

MŠK Žilina – I have to admit no prior knowledge of Žilina before writing this post.  The most I knew about the Slovak Superliga was that Artmedia Bratislava made it to the Champions League group stages a few seasons ago. There always seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to qualify for the group stage, and I think Žilina are that team this year.

Champions of the Slovak Superliga, Žilina are making their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League.  Having previously qualified for the Champions League on 4 occasions, Žilina defeated Birkirkara F.C. (Maltese champions), Litex Lovech (Bulgarian champions), and AC Sparta Prague (Czech champions)  along the way.

Žilina’s team consists mostly of Slovak and Czech players, and doesn’t contain any international stars of note.  Žilina are the second Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage, following Artmedia Bratislava (who finished third in their group in the 2005-2006 season).  If Žilina are able to replicate Artmedia’s success, the Slovaks would have to be happy.

Prediction: Chelsea easily top this group.  The Blues are in fine form this season and open their campaign against Žilina in Slovakia.  Marseille finish second.

Champions League Preview: Group C

With Group A and Group B previews already in the books, we turn our attention to Group C.  Group C has the biggest collection of internationally known clubs out of the groups already previewed.  Three-time winners, Manchester United headline the group, which also contains Rangers F.C., Valencia CF, and Bursaspor.  Interestingly, none of the members of this group had to go through the qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage.  Manchester United qualified by finishing 2nd in the EPL.  Valencia earned their way into the group stage by finishing 3rd in La Liga.  Rangers were the Scottish champions, and Bursaspor won the Turkish League.

Alex Ferguson has Manchester United primed for another run in the Champions League.

Manchester United F.C. – Easily one of the most well-known clubs in the world, Manchester United have to feel they are the favorites in this group.  United are looking to rebound from, what was for them, a sub par showing in the Champions League last season.  The Red Devils were bounced from the competition in the quarterfinals by eventual runners-up Bayern Munich, their earliest exit since 2005-2006 (when they failed to make it out of the group stage).

Last campaign saw Manchester United relinquish the EPL title to Chelsea after three consecutive league championships.  In an effort to bring youth to the team and regain the title, United signed young defender Chris Smalling from Fulham, 20-year old forward Bebé from Vitória de Guimarães, and Mexican international forward Javier Hernández from Chivas.  Adding these three promising young players to a squad that already contained some of the best players in the world makes United even more dangerous this season.  With no major departures, United has the roster to compete and potentially win multiple competitions.

Unlike many of the teams already previewed, United has not stumbled out of the gate in their domestic league.  Through 3 weeks, the Red Devils are 2-1-0, with 3-0 wins over Newcastle United and West Ham wrapped around a 2-2 draw with Fulham.  I expect the group stage to go similarly well for United.  No team in Group C can hang with United.  With players like Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov (who is in fine form this season), Edwin Van Der Saar and Rio Ferdinand, United clearly have both the talent and star power to easily win this group.

Following the losses of David Villa and David Silva, Valencia will need Éver Banega to have a great season.

Valencia CF - Valencia are making their first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 2007-2008.  That season, Valencia finished last in their group, behind Chelsea, Schalke and Norwegian club, Rosenborg.  If Valencia are going to have better luck this season, they will have to do so without the services of their two most influential players from last campaign.  Prolific striker, David Villa, has left for Barcelona, while Spanish international winger, David Silva couldn’t resist the lure of Manchester City’s spending spree.

The departure of two such important figures leaves Valencia with one massive question to answer: where will the goals come from?  In his time with Valencia, David Villa scored 129 goals in 212 total appearances. Looking at their rosters, I don’t see a player on the club who can even come close to matching the scoring prowess or sheer genius of David Villa.  They will also need to replace the pace, vision and (in 2009-2010) scoring of David Silva on the wing.  He scored 10 goals last season (in all competitions), good enough for 2nd on the team.  Valencia responded to the loss of Villa and Silva by signing Roberto Soldado, who scored 20 goals in all competitions for Getafe last season, and Aritz Aduriz, who led RCD Mallorca with 12 goals.  While both signings were shrewd maneuvers, neither will truly replace Villa.  Valencia are also going to need big seasons from Juan Mata and Éver Banega to help soften the blow of losing your top two scorers. Thus far, Valencia have played 1 game in La Liga, notching a 3-1 victory over Málaga.

Despite the departures of Villa and Silva, Valencia does have a talented team.  While they will clearly not push Manchester United, 2nd place isn’t out of the question.

Rangers are hoping James Beattie can add some firepower to the frontline.

Rangers F.C. – Another of the well-known teams in this group, though a team that is increasingly resting on its former international glory to carry its name.  The Scottish Premier League is one of the most top-heavy leagues in the world, with Rangers and Glasgow rivals Celtic F.C. accounting for every title since the SPL came into existence in 1998-1999.  As a result, the Scottish champions (an runners-up) do not play enough top-level soccer to truly compete, on a yearly basis, at the international level. Every year lately, it seems that the Scottish Premier League places one team in the group stage of the Champions League, only to see that team finish 3rd or last in their respective group.  Not since 2006-2007, when Celtic finished 2nd in their group, has a Scottish team advanced to the knockout rounds. Last season, Rangers were the Scottish champions and finished last in their group, with a 0-2-4 record and a -9 goal differential.

Rangers come into this season having won the last two SPL titles and looking to prove something following their rather meek performance in last season’s Champions League.  To that end, Rangers have imported attacking power from Austria and the EPL.  Joining the Gers are: James Beattie from Stoke City, Nikica Jelavić from Rapid Vienna, and Vladimír Weiss on loan from Manchester City.  As one would expect, Rangers are off to a flying start, having won each of their first 3 games.

Rangers are clearly the class of the SPL (along with Celtic) and will likely have a spot in the Champions League for as long as the current format remains in place.  Beyond gaining this place each season, it will take a major step up in competition, domestically, for Rangers to compete consistently.  Perhaps this team has enough attacking talent to make a push for 2nd, but Rangers will have to steal points from Valencia to do so.  A repeat of last season’s performance could be on tap.

Bursaspor represent, perhaps, the biggest unknown in this season's Champions League.

Bursaspor – Another team that I knew little about prior to my writing this preview.  As with Hapoel in Group B, Bursaspor hails from a league on the geographic fringes of Europe.  While the Turkish league has a history of placing competitive teams in the Champions League (usually in the form of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe, or Galatasaray) this will be Bursaspor’s first appearance.  As a matter of fact, Bursaspor are the first team outside the “Big Four” (the aforementioned three teams from Istanbul, and Trabzonspor) to win the Turkish title.

Bursaspor’s team consists of mainly Turkish players, with several Argentinians, and a smattering of players from across Eastern Europe.  Bursaspor’s best known player (at least to Americans) might be Sercan Yıldırım, who made a 2nd half appearance in a friendly against the U.S. just before the World Cup.

The most successful season for a Turkish team in the Champions League was in 2007-2008 when Fenerbahçe made an unlikely run to the quarterfinals, eventually falling to Chelsea.  I don’t see Bursaspor making a similar run, though I believe they will surprise people (maybe even Valencia) and could secure a sport in the Europa League at Rangers’ expense.

Prediction: Manchester United win this group with ease, potentially nabbing all 18 points if they play their first choice squad throughout the group stage.  Valencia finish second, but not as easily as most might expect.

If you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts or predictions, leave a comment.

Check out previews for:
Group A
Group B
Group D
Group E
Group F

Champions League Preview: Group A

With the Champions League group stage draw announced yesterday, The Rally  Cap is bringing you a series of previews (1 for each group) over the next several weeks (prior to the first matches on September 14/15).  Stay tuned and check back often for updates.

The logical place to start is with Group A made up of Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur and FC Twente .

F.C. Internatiozionale Milano – The current Champions League holders and 5-time reigning champions of Serie A, Inter Milan, are a team that face one huge question mark entering the season.  Can they replace manager José Mourinho? Who left for Spanish giants, Real Madrid.  Mourinho’s class was on display as he out managed the rest of Europe and led Inter to its first European title since 1965, and the first treble (league, domestic cup, and European cup) in Italian history.  His brand of soccer might not be the flashiest, but it produces results.  With Mourinho at the Bernabéu, defending their titles will be tough.

While Rafa Benetize be able to replace the Special One and lead Inter to glory?

To replace the Special One, Inter brought in Rafael Benítez. The oft-maligned former manager of Liverpool F.C. will still have plenty of top class players at his disposal in his effort to win his 2nd Champions League trophy (he won his first with Liverpool in 2005-2006).  The core of the team that won last year’s title remains, with no major additions and only the loss of Mario Balotelli (to Manchester City) and Ricardo Quaresma (to Beşiktaş J.K.) qualifying as even semi-important.  The subtraction of Balotelli might be an addition, as his moody attitude will not be missed in the locker room.

With Diego Milito, Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and World Cup star Wesley Sneijder leading the attack, Inter should have a potent offense.  One thing that is troubling is the lack of forward depth behind Milito, Eto’o and Pandev.  If one of them goes down with an injury, Milan will have to rely on David Suazo or unproven Jonathan Biabiany. The defense and the midfield remain solid, with Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso holding in the middle of the park just in front of some combination of Lúcio, Wálter Samuel, Maicon, Thiago Motta, Iván Córdoba, and Cristian ChivuJúlio César will once again be between the wood work.

Inter is certainly primed for a run in the Champions League, and certainly should advance from this group.  I don’t see any team in this group being able to trouble Inter.  Perhaps a team might steal some points when they play Inter at their respective home stadiums, but Inter should coast to the top spot in Group A.

SV Werder Bremen - Werder Bremen sneaked into the Champions League by finishing third in the Bundesliga last season.  They entered the competition at the play-off round and needed some late game heroics to make to the group stage.  If not for Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 93rd minute (which sent the game into extra time) and Claudio Pizarro‘s goal in the 100th minute, we’d be talking about Sampdoria in the group stages instead.

If Werder hope to advance, they need to find somebody to replace Mesut Özil.

Like Inter, Werder lost one of its most influential figures to Real Madrid this summer.  World Cup breakout star, Mesut Özil, followed Mourinho to the Spanish capital and left a huge whole in the Werder midfield.  Werder Bremen made a move to fill the gap, signing Brazilian midfielder Wesley from Santos and  Felix Kroos from Hansa Rostock, but I just don’t think is enough.  With no other major additions how can Werder think Wesley (who has scored 13 goals in his entire career) and Kroos (who hasn’t scored any goals in the top flight) will replace Özil (11 goals last season)?  Beyond Özil’s goals, will Kroos or Wesley be able to replace his creativity in attack?

Werder does have veteran leadership in the form of midfielders Torsten Frings (USMNT fans love him!) and Tim Borowski and in defender Per Mertesacker.  If the veterans can lead the show the youth how to play in Europe, Werder has a shot of advancing from this group.  That said, they have already lost to TSG Hoffenheim 4-1 to start the Bundesliga season and need to right ship if they hope to advance.

Tottenham Hotspur F.C. - Spurs enter their first Champions League campaign with high hopes.  Spurs finally broken into the top four in the English Premier League, thanks to a late season 1-0 victory over Manchester City.  Spurs opened the EPL season with a 0-0 draw against Manchester City, a team that has spent has spent £325 million over the past two years to bring in new talent.  Following the draw, Spurs defeated Stoke City 2-1 at the Britannia Stadium.

Gio Dos Santos hopes Spurs can make it out of the group stage the way Mexico did this summer at the World Cup.

The team has many names familiar names, including forward Peter Crouch (he of the robot goal dances), Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios, and forward Jermain Defoe.  Spurs also have a couple of my favorite players to watch: Aaron Lennon, who uses his amazing pace to make defenders look foolish, and Luka Modrić whose play making ability is world-class but gets little recognition for his stellar play (sort of like when a player like Hanley Ramirez puts up huge numbers in relative obscurity with the Marlins)

Tottenham’s only major addition over the summer has been William Gallas, meaning the team goes into this season with a measure of stability that is unusual in top flight English soccer.  I expect this familiarity to work to their advantage, and would not be surprised to see this ambitious team advance to the knockout round.  However, in order to do this, Spurs will need to play more like the team that beat Young Boys 4-0 at White Hart Lane (securing a spot in the group stage) than the team that lost 3-2 in Bern.

F.C. Twente - A recent fixture in the Champions League qualifying rounds, having made it the past three seasons, Twente finally broke through this season.  Twente will make their first appearance in the Group Stage, and hope to have better luck than last year’s Dutch entrant (AZ Alkmaar, who finished with 0 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses).  Twente have made a steady climb up the Eredivisie table over the past 5 or 6 years and finally won the title last season, pipping Ajax. Former English national team manager Steve McClaren led Twente during its resurgence, but has since left for the greener pastures of the Bundesliga, taking over at Wolfsburg.

Who will replace the scoring of Costa Rican forward Bryan Ruiz if he makes a move to Liverpool or Sevilla? Twente's chances may rest on the answer.

How well Twente will compete in this group is anybody’s guess.  They should certainly not be written off, but with McClaren gone, all-time leading scorer Blaise Nkufo now playing for Seattle Sounders FC, and last season’s leading scorer, Bryan Ruiz the target of clubs such as Liverpool and Sevilla there are many questions surrounding the team.  With Nkufo gone, if Ruiz leaves, who will score?  Can new manager Michel Preud’homme continue the run of success started under Fred Rutten and continued by McClaren?  Will keeper Sander Boschker stand up to international competition?

I expect Twente to be a tough game when they play in the Netherlands, but not trouble the bigger clubs when they play on the road.  Twente would do well to qualify for the Europa League out of this group and might be happy if they do.

My prediction:  Inter easily wins the group.  Tottenham finish 2nd, edging Werder.

Check out the previews for:
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group E
Group F

MLS Needs to Allow Landon Donovan to Go to Europe

MLS announced that it would not field offers for Landon Donovan. Too bad we won't be seeing Donovan don Everton's kit permanently.

Yesterday evening, the Associated Press ran a story where MLS commissioner, Don Garber, basically said that MLS will not field offers for U.S. World Cup star, Landon Donovan.  Garber stated, “Landon is in my view the greatest player of our generation and an incredibly valuable part of our history but also of our future. He proved in England last year on loan and he proved in South Africa that he’s a world-class player and he’s also proved that he loves our league and really has accepted the mantle of really being one of the leaders of the sport. It is my hope and my expectation that we have him for the rest of his career because I think the contributions that he makes are invaluable to our future success.”

While not accepting offers for Donovan makes perfect sense for the league, why get rid of the most recognizable U.S. soccer player, it doesn’t make sense for U.S. soccer.  U.S. soccer needs its best players to play abroad where the competition level is higher and where they will become familiar with the players and teams they will face in international competitions.  MLS needs to allow the best players to leave to go to better leagues.  Period!  By not allowing those players that prove themselves internationally to play in Europe, MLS will never get better as a league.  This might sound counter intuitive, as keeping the best players should mean the level of competition would get better; however, US players will simply not sign with MLS if they know that the league is going to block a potential more to the more lucrative and more competitive European leagues.  Smaller European nations don’t keep all their best talent at home (see Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Croatia, Serbia) and countries in other parts of the world keep virtually none of their best talent in domestic leagues (Australia, most African countries).  Many of these countries’ best players play in one of the Big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Italy, German, France).  It should be the same with the US.

Some might argue that it would be better to keep talent at home than have them sit on the bench in Europe (see Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and others).  While I would agree in principle, I think many U.S. players go about their entry into Europe in the wrong way.  I believe that players should follow the path that Michael Bradley has taken in moving from MLS.  He first moved to a more competitive league in one of Europe’s smaller countries (in his case the Netherlands) and then on to a team in one of the Big 5 leagues (he now plays for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany).  Following his standout performance at the World Cup, there are rumors that Bradley could be moving the EPL, the league for many that represents the pinnacle of soccer competition.  Under this model, MLS would have players in their early career, helping to develop the skills needed to compete.  Fans would get to see the next generation of USMNT stars and would develop rooting interests in them.  After a bit of seasoning in MLS, the players most ready to move to Europe should move to leagues in countries like the Netherlands, Portugal, or Greece.  Hopefully, at clubs in these countries American players would develop further as players, learning a more technical style to go along with the unmatched fitness that is the hallmark of the USMNT.  After proving their worth in these smaller leagues, players could then move to a bigger league where the competition level would be even higher and where skills could be further sharpened.  If U.S. players followed this formula, I believe that we would produce far more top-level soccer talent and that both MLS and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) would benefit.

The simple fact is that U.S. players need to compete on the highest level to truly give the USMNT a chance to compete internationally.  MLS needs to get on board or get out of the way.

UPDATE (7/21/2010): Manchester City’s boss, Roberto Mancini, has stated that he is interested in adding Donovan.  I’m not a huge fan of a potential move to the Eastlands for Donovan, as Man City already has a ton of wing/midfield options.  I’m not sure that he will get the playing time he needs.  I still think a move back to Everton would be the best option.  More on the rumor here: http://www.mirrorfootball.co.uk/news/Manchester-City-transfer-news-Landon-Donovan-interesting-Eastlands-article502305.html

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Clash of the Titans

Before I launch into my preview of the Germany-Spain match, let’s look back at today’s game between Uruguay and the Netherlands.  The game turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, with 5 goals being scored.  Two of the tournament’s best performers (Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán) were again on display.  Sneijder bagged his 5th goal and is tied with David Villa for the Golden Boot.  The Dutch’s first goal was a great shot from distance by veteran left back,  Giovanni Van Bronckhorst.  The ball was a great strike into the top corner, Fernando Muslera could do little to keep it out.  Uruguay equalized through a goal by Forlán just before the half.  The Dutch pushed for a good portion of the second half and finally got a goal when Sneijder’s shot from the edge of the box took a funny bounce off of Maxi Pereira.  There is a question as to whether the goal should have been allowed, as Robin Van Persie (who has been less than stellar this World Cup) was narrowly offside.  Perhaps the referee saw him as being in a passive position (most definitely not) or perhaps he called him onside due to Maxi Pereira’s “playing” of the ball.  Either way, the goal counted.  THe Dutch scored again through a sublime build up and cross by Dirk KuytArjen Robben finished the cross from Kuyt to put the Oranje up 3-1.  Uruguay pushed in the final 5 minutes with Maxi Pereira scoring a goal off a well-played free kick that was laid off to him at the top of the box. The win propelled the Dutch to their first World Cup final since 1978 and assured an all European final.

An interesting thing about the Dutch win is that it eliminated the last South American team from the 2010 World Cup. South American teams had been dominant up to the quarterfinals, with 4 out of the 5 entrants making it to the final 8. Uruguay was the only South American team to make the semifinals.  Europe, on the other hand, has had a shaky Cup, until now.  Three European teams made it to the final 8.  All three advanced to the final 4 and we will have 2 European teams in the final.  Which team will be the second European team in the 2010 World Cup final? Let’s break down the match.

This is a match of a team that classically overachieves versus a team that is trying to permanently shed its underachiever label.  Spain went a long way to shedding that ignominious label by beating Germany in the Euro 2008 final. The win propelled Spain to the #1 spot in the FIFA rankings, but a series of less than stellar outings allowed Brazil to regain the top spot.  Spain’s loss to the US at the 2009 Confederations Cup combined with an opening game loss to Switzerland at this World Cup made the Euro 2008 victory seem like a thing of the past.  Spain has rebounded nicely to make it to their first ever semifinal at the World Cup.  Germany, on the other hand, are in their 4th semifinal in a row and are seeking a shot at their 4th title.

Goalkeeper - Captain, and arguably best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas is in net for Spain, while relative newcomer, Manuel Neuer will again backstop Germany.  Initial reaction from most fans would be the this is a no contest victory for Spain; however, Casillas has seemed a bit distracted throughout the tournament.  That said, a distracted Casillas is still better than most goalkeepers, and he rose to the occasion against Paraguay.  His save of  Óscar Cardozo’s PK was clutch!  The save kept Spain in the game and allowed David Villa to score the game winner.  Neuer has been playing very well and has only conceded 2 goals the entire tournament.  He is still untested in truly big games (and this one is massive).  Will he rise to the occasion?  Advantage: Spain

Defense - Here too, many fans might see Spain has having a much better defense than Germany.  Look past the glitzy names like Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué and this match up is much closer than it initially appears.  Spain certainly has the name recognition, but Germany’s defense has been excellent throughout the tournament.  While they are susceptible to the counter attack, as show by England, they bend but don’t break.  Arne Friedrich and Per Mertesacker might not have the name recognition of the Spanish center back tandem, but they have played every bit as well.  They worked tirelessly to keep Argentina’s potent offense off the score sheet, making Lionel Messi look a bit lost.  Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm have also done well at the full back positions, both in defense and going forward in attack. There has been some speculation that Puyol may miss game due to injury, which would likely mean Carlos Marchena or Raúl Albiol would start in his place.  Both replacements are solid, but Puyol marshals the back line very well, and his presence would be missed.  Advantage: Spain (by a small margin if Puyol plays).

Midfield - Spain, once again, has the star power in midfield with the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fábregas (who will likely start, if healthy, in the place of the slumping Fernando Torres).   If Spain elects to sit Torres, they will employ a 4-5-1 formation, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso playing behind the aforementioned trio.  Keep in mind that Fabregas appears to be nursing a leg injury, suffered during practice on Monday.  The Spanish midfield typically has a lot of possession as they like to use short passes to cut open defenses.  This, however, has allowed some teams to shut them down (see the US at the Confederations Cup, Switzerland and even Paraguay in defeat).  Their reliance on short passing can make them one-dimensional in their attack.  It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that Spain finally broke through against a tiring Paraguay (remember Paraguay had just played a game that went to PKs against Japan).  Germany has shown that it is a master of counterattacking in this World Cup.  Manager, Joachim Löw, has used his talent to the best of its abilities.  Thomas Müller has been a revelation, but will miss the semifinal due to yellow card accumulation.  Finding his replacement could be tough given how well he has been playing.  Even without him, Germany are strong with emerging holding midfielder Sami Khedira, attacking starlet Mesut Özil, and veteran playmaker/free kick specialist Bastian Schweinsteiger.  This match up shuld be fun to watch, as the Spanish try to break down the German back line and the Germans counterattack. The emergence of Özil, great play from Schweinsteiger and Khedira, and the potential injury to Fabregas make this an even match up.  Advantage: Push

Forward - As with every other area of the pitch, the Spanish have more star power up front.  David Villa is tied for the Golden Boot with 5 goals and Fernando Torres has been prolific for Liverpool since joining the EPL.  Torres, unfortunately for Spain, has not been able to translate that form to the international stage.  He has looked tired, lost, and just plain bad most of the tournament.  This is likely to prompt Spain into a tactical switch, leaving Villa as the lone striker.  Germany has Miroslav Klose, a man who knows how to score goals for his country, particularly in the World Cup. Klose (14 career goals at the World Cup) is 1 goal from tying Ronaldo for the most World Cup goals scored by a player in his career.  He has been his usual, solid self all tournament.  Lukas Podolski has been excellent setting up the attack and has found the back of the net twice himself.  Germany has more depth than Spain, being able to bring Cacau and Mario Gomez off the bench.  Both players are dangerous.  Spain has Fernando Llorente and wingers Pedro and Jesús Navas.  All are good players, but none have the finishing ability of Cacau or Gomez.  Advantage: Germany

Germany is a classic example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts.  They have several excellent players, but none are as flashy as their Spanish counterparts.  While Spain, on paper, has a better grouping of players, Germany has a better team.  For this reason, and Löw’s tactical superiority over Vicente Del Bosque, Germany will win this game.  They have looked much better throughout the tournament than Spain, but I still want to see Spain win.

US and the Game of Destiny

Tomorrow (6/23), the United States Men’s National Team faces a must win game.  Sure they’ve been in this situation before (the Confederations Cup last year in South Africa, in previous World Cups) but this game seems far more important.  With this World Cup causing unprecedented buzz in the US, a win is imperative.  If the US is bounced at the group stage again, I would be willing to bet that interest in the tournament will flag.  If the US wins and can make a run to even the quarterfinals, this World Cup could help turn the US into a soccer nation.

While most American fans, – hardcore or casual – know that winning the tournament might be a bridge to far, getting out of the group stage is certainly within the team’s grasp.  A win over Algeria (ranked 16 places lower than the US) is manageable.  If the US can win the game and England beats Slovenia (with a margin that is equal to or lesser than the US’s victory margin), the US would secure top spot in the group.  This could allow them to avoid a potential round of 16 match against Germany (assuming Germany defeats Ghana tomorrow).  Any of the other potential opponents (Serbia, Ghana or Australia) don’t seem nearly as scary.

The Desert Foxes have acquitted themselves nicely thus far, losing to Slovenia by a goal and drawing against England.  Many of Algeria’s players were born in France and several play in top leagues in Europe.  Nadir Belhadj, who plays his club soccer for Portsmouth, might be the most well known player for Les Fennecs.  The US will also needs to keep tabs on Karim Ziani of Wolfsburg in Germany, and Abdelkader Ghezzal of Siena in Italy. If the US is going to win the game, they will need to break down a stingy Algerian defense.  Algeria has something to play for in this game (they can advance with a win and a Slovenia win) and will not role over.  A slow start like they had against both England and Slovenia cannot happen again.  The US needs to play with the same urgency they played with during the second half of the Slovenia game.  The US will need to create space for runs off the ball through the packed Algerian midfield and defense (they are likely to start 5 in the midfield).  The US will also need to keep mental lapses and defensive breakdowns to a minimum.

With Robbie Findley suspended due to yellow card accumulation, I’d like to see the US start this line-up against Algeria:

Altidore—–Demspey

Donovan—–Bradley—–Edu—–Holden

Bocanegra—–Onyewu—–DeMerit—–Cherundolo

Howard

This is similar to the line-up that finished the game against Slovenia, with Holden replacing Benny Feilhaber (though I couldn’t argue with Feilhaber starting at RM), Edu slotting into midfield instead of his temporary CB position (he moved there when Herculez Gomez was brought on in the 80th minute), and a return to the starting defensive alignment.  I think this line-up provides the most creativity and uses Dempsey’s talent for goal scoring most effectively.  I really feel that Edu is the best option to start next to Bradley, he plays box-to-box and obviously has a nose for goal.  Jose Torres didn’t look like he was ready for primetime in the Slovenia game and Rico Clark had too many defensive lapses in the England game.  All that being said, I think that Bradley will go with the line-up that started against England (Clark in midfield next to Bradley), with Gomez swapped in for Findley.

By noon tomorrow we will know if the US has taken care of business and later in the day we will find out their potential opponent in the round of 16.  Tomorrow should (hopefully) be a fun day for US soccer fans.

UPDATE: Bradley has decided to change things up a bit.  Onyewu is out, with Bocanegra slotting in at CB.  Jonathan Bornstein will start at LB.  Gomez is the starter opposite Altidore and Edu is the starter in midfield next to Michael Bradley (I like the Edu move, and I can’t argue with Gomez, who was top scorer in the Mexican league this past season, starting).  I am a tad worried about the choice of Bornstein.  Bradley has a mancrush on Bornstein, consistently playing him despite poor showings for the national team.  If Bradley felt the need to replace Onyewu, who hasn’t played to his potential after a long injury layoff, I would have been more confident in Jonathan Spector starting at LB.  While Spector was less than stellar in the lead up to the World Cup, he starts for an EPL team and was very good during qualifying.

France’s Flame Out and Other Musings

Siphiwe Tshabalala (L) has been South Africa's danger man

Wow!  Just wow!  When France goes down, they do it with panache.  Their 2010 World Cup campaign is eerily similar to their 2002 flame out.   During that World Cup. France lost to an African team (Senegal), drew with Uruguay and lost to Denmark.  The only wrinkle this time is instead of losing to a European team, they lost to a North American team.  Unfortunately for the continent of Africa and the host nation, South Africa was not able to duplicate Senegal’s improbable qualification for the knockout round.  On their way to a 2-1 loss, Sidney Govou, Florent Malouda, Patrice Evra and Eric Abidal were all dropped from the starting line-up.  This sends a signal that these players must have been the main troublemakers in the French camp.   Raymond Domenech continued with his odd line-up choices starting Djibril Cisse over Thierry Henry (if you happen to click the link and look at Henry’s bio, he looks a bit forlorn in the picture, perhaps he knew what was coming for France).  I understand that Henry is getting a little old in terms of international soccer (he’s 32), but doesn’t he present a better option up top than Djibril Cisse?  It will be interesting to see how France rebounds under the leadership of Laurent Blanc with Euro 2012 qualifying starting in September.

In other news from the France-South Africa game – Siphiwe Tshabalala, who plays in South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs, had another great game.  He assisted on South Africa’s first goal with a great corner and was consistently dangerous from his midfield spot.  Steven Pienaar received most of the attention in the lead up to the World Cup, and rightfully so.  Pienaar plays for Everton in the EPL (4 goals and 3 assists this past season) and was much more of a known commodity.   Tshabalala (who has my favorite name at the World Cup) was a relative unknown outside of South Africa.  After his performance a European team will come calling for his services.  He was South Africa’s most dangerous player all tournament and ultimately the star of the tournament for Bafana Bafana.  It’s a shame that South Africa didn’t advance from their group, becoming the first host country ever to not advance.

As of now, we know that Mexico and Uruguay have advanced.  Uruguay finished first in group A and will likely avoid a round of 16 match with Argentina.  Mexico will likely play Argentina, who should finish atop group B.  This would be the 2nd consecutive World Cup that Argentina and Mexico have met in the round of 16.  The next set of matches starts soon, off to enjoy more soccer.

Has Parity Come to International Soccer?

This World Cup seems to be, at least through most of the 2nd games in the group stage, signaling a new-found parity in international soccer.  The traditional European powers, England (8), Germany (6) , Spain (2), Italy (5), and France (9), home to the 5 biggest and supposedly best soccer leagues in the world (FIFA rankings in parentheses), have been dreadful thus far.  The records through 2 games (for Spain 1) are:

W D L Pts. Goal Difference
England 0 2 0 2 0
France 0 1 1 1 -2
Germany 1 0 1 3 2
Italy 0 0 2 2 0
Spain 0 0 1 1 -1

As you can see, Germany is the only team to win a game (a 4-0 drubbing of Australia (20)), though they have also lost as well (1-0 to pre-tourney dark horse, Serbia (15)).  Italy and England have had to settle for a pair of draws each. One could argue that the first draw for each wasn’t a bad result with England drawing the US (14) and Italy drawing Paraguay (31).  However, the second draw for each team has no doubt caused widespread panic in each country.  England drew unfancied Algeria (30), and Italy can thank a dubious PK for their draw with New Zealand (78), one of the lowest ranked teams at the World Cup.  New Zealand’s squad consists of players that mostly play in the A-Leauge, Australia’s top league, with a smattering of players plying their trade internationally.  They have 2 players who play in a top European league, Ryan Nelsen who plays in defense for Blackburn in the English Premier League and Chris Wood who plays forward for newly promoted West Bromwich Albion (also of the EPL).   A team with this makeup has no business drawing the defending champions.  Italy’s entire squad is made up of players who play in Serie A, probably the 3rd best league in the world (after the EPL and La Liga), with the exception of captain Fabio Cannavaro who has just left Juventus to play for Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates.  This is another example of a team taking an opponent too lightly.  New Zealand was playing with house money and were able to cash in with a well deserved draw.

England controls their own destiny.  A win and they are through to the next round.  A draw coupled with a US loss would see the English through as well.  If England loses to Slovenia (25), their tournament is done.

Italy is also in position to advance, they are level on points with New Zealand.  Italy plays Slovakia (34) in the final group game, and based on rankings alone Italy should win.  Though, they should have beaten New Zealand too.  An Italian win sees them through to the next round.  A draw could also advance them, as long as New Zealand doesn’t pull off a stunner against Paraguay (who have taken care of business) in their last group game.

France’s struggles have been the subject of two previous posts, however, the most pressing problem may be that they are likely to miss the knockout rounds because of a loss to Mexico (17), nothing to be ashamed of, and a draw with Uruguay (16).  The French face South Africa (83) in their final game and need a massive win and some help to advance.

Germany is in the best shape of the teams that have completed two games.  By virtue of their big win over Australia they provided themselves with a large goal difference cushion (goal difference is the first tie-breaker used to determine which team advances to the next round in the even the teams are level on points).   For Germany, a win over Ghana (32) secures their spot in the next round.  They could also advance with a draw as long as Serbia does not win their game over Australia.

Spain has the most time to recover from their lethargic display against Switzerland.  With two games to play against inferior competition (Honduras (38) and Chile (18)).  Spain can right ship and advance to the 2nd round with a pair of wins.

While none of the teams are totally out of it (France is on life support), this has not been the cake walk most were expecting.  Also, an interesting tidbit is that if both France and Italy fail to make it to the knockout stage it will be the first time since the World Cup took on its current format (1986) that both teams from the previous World Cup final will have failed to make it to the knockout stage.  In fact every team since 1986 that has been in a final has advanced at the next World Cup with the notable exception of the 2002 French squad.

Several surprising names lead groups – Slovenia, Ghana, Uruguay, Paraguay – and there have been several upsets, as noted above.  Could this be signaling a change in international soccer?  Only time will tell.  There are still a lot of games to play but so far the little guys are making names for themselves in South Africa.