Tag Archives: Champions League

Thursday Thoughts – Soccer, Baseball and Football

Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t written a post in 10 days.  I’ve started taking classes again, and they have sucked up most of my free time.  My intention is to try to post 2 or 3 post per week while I am taking classes.  I will likely post on weekends, Thursdays and possibly Tuesdays.

Since my last post, tons of stuff has happened in the world of sports: the Champions League has played its second game; the Phillies clinched their 4th straight N.L. East title (and best record in the National League); the Red Sox have been eliminated from playoff contention; the Eagles have looked good with Michael Vick at quarterback (and face a game against former QB Donovan McNabb and the Redskins); the NHL preseason has started; and NBA training camps have kicked off.  I guess this is what happens when you don’t post for a week and a half.

Former Panathinaikos forward and current member of FC Copenhagen, Dame N'Doye has led the Lions to the top of Group D.

Soccer – The Champions League has played two rounds of soccer since my last post on the beautiful game, so this seemed like a good time to take a look at what has transpired.  The biggest surprise has to be F.C. Copenhagen who currently sit atop Group D with 6 points from 2 games.  This is no easy feat, as the group contains perennial contenders, Barcelona.  Copenhagen opened the campaign with a 1-0 victory of Rubin Kazan, and followed that victory with an impressive 2-0 victory over Panathinaikos in Greece.  Barcelona opened with a 5-1 drubbing of the Greeks but was held in Russia by Rubin Kazan, giving the Catalans 4 points from 2 games.  I expect Barça to win the group, but you have to think the Danes have the inside track on 2nd at this point (making my prediction of Panathinaikos finishing 2nd incorrect).

Equally surprising is the poor showing by Marseille, who have lost their first two matches and haven’t scored a goal (1-0 to Spartak Moscow at the Stade Vélodrome and 2-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge).   Marseille, last year’s Ligue 1 champions, currently sit 6th in the league and have enjoyed a good run of form domestically; however, they have not been able to translate that into international competition.  This is another group where my prediction could be terribly wrong, as Marseille need to make up 6 points on Spartak in order to finish 2nd (Chelsea is oviously going to win this group).

Of the big names, Arsenal and Chelsea have looked the most impressive to open the competition, with the Gunners enjoying a +8 goal difference (though their group is rather weak) and the Blues posting a +5.  Looking at the rest of the competition, the most of the groups have gone rather predictably, with no other major upsets or disappointments yet.

Baseball – My dream of my two teams once again making the playoffs came to halt this week when the Red Sox were eliminated from contention with a loss to the White Sox.  I suppose I should have been prepared for this when Theo Epstein said this was a “bridge” year for the Sox, but I held out hope (at least until I saw them get drubbed by the Blue Jays a month ago).  But even after that drubbing, I hoped the Sox could make a comeback.  They even teased me by winning the first two games of their series against the Yankees.  Had they been able to sweep, who knows what could have happened?

As for the Phillies, they have continued to steamroll through the N.L. on their way to their 4th straight division title.  This is new territory for me as a Phillies fan.  For my whole life, up until the last 6 or 7 seasons (and not counting that magical 1993 team), the Phillies have been terrible.  The team has never had a stretch where they have been this competitive for this many years (other than in the mid 70s).  I’m not sure how to be a fan of the front-runners.

The Big Three could start all but 2 of the Phillies' playoff games. Watch out MLB.

The Phils are clearly the favorites in the National League, some might argue the entire league.  With their “Big Three” pitchers, they will be tough to beat in a short series.  The Phils made a shrewd decision to select the longer division series (extra day off) giving them the opportunity to pitch on a three-man rotation.  Whomever they play in the first round should start booking their tee times because the series will be over in short order.

Football – The Eagles have certainly supplied a lot of drama over the first few weeks of the season.  Kevin Kolb, the anointed successor to former stalwart Donovan McNabb, went down with a concussion in the early part of the first game against Green Bay.  Following the injury, Michael Vick came in and led the Birds to a near comeback.  Vick looked good, and followed with a great game against Detroit.  Following the Detroit game, The Eagles announced that Vick would be the starter even after Kolb was healthy.

Michael Vick has looked good in his two starts. Will he lead the Birds to the promised land?

Who saw this coming?  I expected Vick to play at some point, because I wasn’t sold on Kolb, but I never saw the Eagles abandoning Kolb so early in the season.  Andy Reid had just traded the franchise to a division rival because he believed Kolb was the answer, and then he gives the kid a quarter to prove himself?   Crazy!  Undoubtedly, Vick has looked good in his time as the starter (though he has yet to face a decent team), but to abandon Kolb seems short-sighted.  Unless the Eagles truly believe they can win the Super Bowl this season, I just don’t think this move makes sense.  I know they have a soft schedule to start the season and they need to rack up as many wins as they can, but they are stunting Kolb’s growth by not allowing him to start.  Vick is clearly not the long-term answer, and Kolb (who I wasn’t sure was the answer either) may never evolve into that solution. I have enjoyed watching Vick play the last couple of weeks, and there is nothing America loves more than a redemption story, but the Birds need to think about the long-term.

On another note, I think the first couple of games has shown that perhaps Andy Reid should have been the person shown the door instead of McNabb.  Reid’ poor clock management and less than stellar play calling have continued.  In the game against Green Bay, Reid used all of his timeouts before the 5 minute mark of the 4th quarter and he called a misguided 4th-and-1 play where Vick ran a draw rather than a simple run up the middle.  These calls could have drastically changed the outcome of the game.  Maybe the Birds didn’t need a new quarterback, just a new coach.

Other Sports – In other news, the Flyers have started the preseason and look to make another run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Sixers have started training camp.  Both should merit watching and will be covered more in this space once the NHL and NBA season get closer.

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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