Posts Tagged ‘ Off the Ball ’

Morbo Minute–Atleti Show Their Stripes

Another round, another Barcelona victory.  That story line can be put to bed until March when we’ll see if fatigue or a push from Real Madrid or focus on European glory slows the Blaugrana juggernaut.  As for the rest of La Primera, the panel at Inside Spanish Football pod named Cristiano Ronaldo their Player of the Week, as he scored their Goal of the Week and was the only bright spot in another wise dour Madrid Derby.  They also touched on Valencia not treating their manager, a former player during a very successful time for the club, with respect before moving on Getafe’s third straight victory and other news and notes.  Don’t want to forget to mention Joel Campbell’s cracking goal for Betis as Los Verdiblancos built on their victory over Real Madrid and are now in fourth.  Plus Malaga’s third kit made an appearance in their loss to Getafe.  Electric lime might not be the proper identification, but whatever the color, not attractive.

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FC Barcelona 5  Athletic Bilbao 1

Los Leones came into the match after a rescheduled Europa League game in midweek so I was concerned about their energy levels, but the team started well and maintained a great deal of composure despite being without Muniain.  Unfortunately, once the visitors got over midfield, everything broke down, with Aduriz and Ander having very poor games, losing their footing and constantly turning the ball over.

In time, the hosts simply overwhelmed Athletic pushing players forward, interchanging positions and pressuring them all over the pitch.  Once FCB broke through, off a direct corner of all things, there was only one result.  The Blaugrana immediately scored another goal and created wonderful chances throughout the half, culminating in a simply stunning goal from Adriano with the last kick of the first period.

The second half saw Llorente come on for Aduriz but the big forward had even less of an impact on the game, as Athletic tired, leading to less pressure and organization and poor interplay from all players.  FCB took it down a gear but still scored twice.  Iniesta laid off a skillful pass for Fabregas; Ibai scored a fine consolation goal; and Messi added his second of the night to complete the scoring.

A couple of player notes.

  • Thought Iniesta started poorly but eventually was unplayable.  What he can do in tight spaces is beyond comprehension.
  • Ramalho was had a ‘mare at right back.  Chased shadows and lost possession for a majority of the game.
  • Adriano played on his opposite side.  Some debate on why he started instead of Montoya, but he made a great run for his goal and showed tremendous energy throughout the match. Definite glue guy for the team.

With Atleti’s loss, the Blaugrana are now six points clear at the top.  A result against Los Colchoneros just before the winter break and FCB can start looking at trying to retain their Copa del Rey title as well as regaining the Champions League.

Spoiled.  Simply put that is what Barca fans are at the moment says Kxevin from Barcelona Football Blog.  The Blaugrana are now on top of the league in record breaking fashion, a league that has decided to stop fearing FCB and tried to take the game to them.  Action, reaction.  Repeat.  In this case, Tito Vilanova has made the team more direct, less patient and focused on results.  One thing that Pep’s teams did not do in the last season or two was step on the throat.  This current squad rips the throat, dismembers the opponent and revels in the bloodbath.  A couple of nervy moments at the beginning of the season have given way to a run of form reminiscent of the amazing run of the 2010/11 campaign with win after win.  Yet Real Madrid still came back.  Tito’s real test will be rotating the squad to maintain the results and the awe inspiring play while keeping a little in reserve for the trophy with the big ears.  Let’s see where things in stand heading into March. Fans are still spoiled though.  And it won’t last forever.

(Tangent.  This goes for FCB and Manchester United.  Once Fergie goes at Old Trafford, United will begin the slow descent into mediocrity.  Gone will be Father Figure, the manager who strikes terror in everyone involved, the veteran hand who has seen everything, and the gaffer who can instill confidence and fear in equal measure in his players.  So with Barca.  The Golden Generations can’t last forever.  Time is almost up for Puyol and Xavi, with Villa and Iniesta to follow.  Then you have the Messi/Pique/Fabregas group.  The Argentinian will be the focus and that may be the problem.  Without a strong supporting cast his influence can be reduced.  Argentina National Team anyone?  Then you have Pedro, Montoya, Busquets and Thiago.  Can that group reach the heights of their predecessors?  Can they do it with the veterans to lead them? Can they do without heavy investment from the squad?  Barca has always hit a lull before remerging.  Van Gaal gave way to a barren period before Rijkaard led them to glory.  But the Dutchman failed to retain the titles of 2006 and eventually gave way to Pep and a simply historic period of success that we have not seen the end of.  But it will end.  Always has, always will be.  What is the next chapter?

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Real Madrid 2  Atletico Madrid 0

What a disappointment.  Atleti came into this match with their best chance in a long time of ending the hoodoo and Simeone sent out his troops with one thought—foul the shit of the Los Blancos.  I understand the approach, get into Real’s head, get them off their game and sneak in a goal, but Atleti did very little in the way of attacking.  With only four or five shots (that might be generous) the visitors focused on the physical attack, with Diego Costa leading the way.  If this had been an NBA game, he would have fouled out early, but at least he came to play, not backing down from the hosts and trying to drive forward.  Falcao channeled his inner Rivaldo after the Sergio Ramos love tap.  Nothing there.  You’re a big, strong lad.  Get on with it.

Mourinho put out a full strength eleven, and while Ozil was ok, maybe a little better than his 45 minutes against Real Betis, I felt that Di Maria had some nice individual moments but maybe he could have combined better. After minor flare ups from Pepe and Sergio Ramos due to Atleti’s robust style, the defenders were firmly in control.  The Special One stated that he didn’t know his team earlier in the season.  Yet he continues to roll out the same players. Seems like he should make changes to startle the underperformers into doing a little more.

Cristiano’s goal was spectacular.  I can’t remember the last time he scored one like that, but it reminded me of the goal he scored for United against Pompey, maybe 2008 or 2009.   Simply unstoppable.  Real Madrid found their rhythm in the second half, with nice interchanges in the final third, which kept the visitors pinned back.

The match was reminiscent of the Barcelona and Real Madrid battles early in Pep’s reign, in which Real would just foul and foul and foul, hoping to stop FCB by brute force rather than by organization, anticipation and tactics.  In the same way, Atleti tried to outmuscle rather than out play Real.  Maybe if they had tried to play straight up, their reward might have been a Real Madrid Manita, but for all the hype and expectation, this match was a huge let down.

One last note, going back through the lineups, I saw Carvalho was on the bench.  I didn’t even know he was still on the squad.

Managing Madrid saw Ronaldo open the scoring which forced Atleti out of their shell and from there Ozil took full advantage.  These two players have had recent success against their crosstown rivals and again they rose to the occasion.

Martin Rosenow reviewed the damage for Atleti Fans.  Ronaldo’s goal took the wind of Los Colcheneros and with Luis Felipe out due to late injury, the team never got going. Nine straight derby losses.  Ouch.  However, still firmly in second and well above the chasing pack for third.  If Atleti can hold on to Falcao, they will have a small window to replace Valencia as the best of the rest.  However if the Colombian goes, I fear they will fall away again.  We’ll see.

Atleti is one of many clubs in La Liga struggling to find a shirt sponsor.  Their last set sponsor was Kia, which cut ties in 2011, so I was surprised to see something across the chests of the red and white jerseys.  Based on a post at Atleti Fans, the club signed an agreement with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Not sure what Land of Fire on but if the club is getting money, then more power to them.

Finally, Chalk on the Boots analyzed the game, correctly stating that the match was “instantly forgettable” with 42 fouls and very little in terms of attacking fluency.  He identified a couple of key factors to the match: Ozil’s lack of space against a compact Atleti side (until the game opened up in the second half); Cata Diaz, usually a centerback, played at left back, which sacrificed an element of attack; and a lack of wide service for Falcao and Costa.

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Articles

Sid Lowe focused on Pellegrino’s dismissal in his weekly column.  After standing by several coaches in the past, President Manolo Llorente fired his manager as the fans have begun to turn on him.  Backed by the players, there are elements of fear and lack of long term planning in this decision and now it is up to Valverde to improve their league position while contending in the Copa and the Champions League.

La Liga Loca also discussed Pellegrino’s termination on Football365.  As everyone said at the end of last season when Emery was let go, be careful what you wish far.  Despite relative success, Emery was let go, and, after the club failed to get AVB, Llorente turned to Pellegrino.  The Argentinean didn’t last long and now the club is faced with financial and managerial instability.

Phil Ball wondered how the seemingly laid back Tito Vilanova gets the Blaugrana to press and attack and bamboozle opponents.  Their record start has been inspired by a historic individual performance and an indefatigable team effort.  He then moved to the Madrid Derby, where Simeone showed a possible lack of tactical nous.  Phil also touched on the cult of Mourinho as his window of influence and abrasiveness is closing.  He concluded with Pellegrino’s firing and the reemergence of Javier Aguirre at Espanyol.

Listened to an old Off the Ball pod (11/21) with Graham Hunter, in which he discussed CR7’s future at Real Madrid.  The winger’s contract is running out and this prompted a conversation about whether the club should sell the Portuguese player (could go to City or PSG) and possibly buy Neymar.  The players are not like for like in terms of footballing ability but there is something to be said in terms of star power.

Staying with CR7, Jonathan Wilson made the argument in the Guardian that Ronaldo is the reason that Real Madrid won’t win La Decima.  While he concedes the former Manchester United’s great physical skills, he notes some glaring weaknesses in his game that could keep him from being part of a great team.  Isolated as defensive laxity, Wilson notes that full backs create disadvantages for the rest of Ronaldo’s teammates causing undue pressure and goals. On Off the Ball last week Wilson went as far to say that Ronaldo would not be in his starting eleven because “he doesn’t know how to play football.”  His premise is that systems and groups win rather than one player who demands the ball, demands the players and demands the accolades.  Definitely a provocative argument, especially in a world that sees the current landscape as Messi v Ronaldo.

Finally, My Golden Great is a series that Football Espana is developing, where the site looks back into the history of the league to identify wonderful players of years past.  Recently Sam Marsden picked out Rivaldo’s year just before the end of the millennium.  Right in my wheelhouse, as this was the time when I started following FCB and La Liga with some regularity.  I remembered his amazing performances against United in the 1998/99 Champions League Group Stage and some phenomenal goals in the following campaign, both home and abroad.  The Brazilian ended up winning the 1999 Ballon d’Or award after a great year for club and country.  I was able to find his Barca goals from in and around that season.  As Tim Vickery always says, Rivaldo might be involved 50 times in a match.  48 times he’ll drive you crazy but the other two are simply amazing.

Old Futbol Buffet–Long Live the King

Eric Cantona signed 20 years ago for Manchester United.  I wasn’t even following football at the time, so my first real memory of him was the 1994 FA Cup Final against Chelsea, with my favorite recollection of the Frenchman being the 1996 FA Cup Final goal struck in the dying moments against Liverpool.  Watching the match on replay at my parents, I screamed in ecstasy as the ball found its way into the back of the net.  Props to Anton Alfy for putting a video of all 82 goals that Cantona scored for Manchester United.  Well worth 15 minutes of your time.  Viva Le Roi!!

Robert Meakin led the tribute to Cantona on last week’s Manchester United Redcast.  After breaking down the win over QPR, he looked at possible winger replacements as Nani will surely be off in January and Young has struggled to find form.  Cantona’s impact on the club was discussed before moving on Fergie and how long he has at the club and who could replace him?  (Pep and Mourinho were mentioned.)

Speaking of Fergie, Roger Bennett posted on ESPN FC regarding the recent Harvard Business School report on Sir Alex, noting that the secrets to his success are building a foundation, maintaining control, evolving with the times, and evaluating talent.  Would love to get a copy of that.

As for the current United team, a crazy first half saw seven goals in 34 minutes, as the Red Devils went into half time up 4-3.  That ended up being the final score in a game that was full of incident.  Due to supporting my kid’s school, I was working in a concession stand and missed the brouhaha.

Daniele at Red Rants watched another sloppy performance from the United rearguard, and only a strong and swift response from the team earned the Reds the three points.  As he pointed out in his post game notes:

Sure they score goals for fun and they’ve mastered the old club tradition of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – United have fallen behind 14 times in 22 games this season – but thinking that the “you score four, we score five” approach could possibly lead to a title, is at best naive and at worst downright deluded.

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MLS Cup Final

After watching a couple of La Liga games, I was able to see the second half of the MLS Cup.  The Galaxy took the game to the Dynamo, with Gonzalez equalizing and then LA taking the lead after Clark handled in the box.  Donovan converted and eventually the breakaways paid off as Hall tried to haul down Keane, who kept his feet but the referee pointed to the spot again.  The Irishman scored the spot kick this time to give the Galaxy a 3-1 win and second MLS Cup win in a row.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Ricardo Clark is awful.
  • Not sure if Lalas shaving his mustache at halftime is the grossest or awesomest thing ever.
  • Houston’s jerseys looked like they were claimed from a Goodwill sale.  I thought sublimation was left back in the 90’s.  SB Nation’s Dynamo page posted the particulars on the shirt.  (Rays and energy. Seriously?)
  • Mad props to Donovan for dedicating his goal to a Make A Wish family.  No way I would have even thought of that in the aftermath of a Cup victory.
  • The MLS ball reeked of bargain bin quality.
  • Tally is not a name.  It’s a hunting cry.

The panel on the SI Soccer Roundtable (11/29) discussed the chapter that is ending with Beckham’s farewell and the future of the league as a whole.  Really brought the last five years of the league into the focus.

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Articles and Podcasts

Bira Brasil was Beyond the Pitch in the aftermath of Mano Menezes being axed as Brazil boss.  Bira handicapped the challengers and thought that Tite and Ramalho would be chosen ahead of former coach and World Cup Winner Luiz Felipe Scolari.  In the end Big Phil was chosen.  Can he regroup the team ahead of a home World Cup?  Watch this space.

Tim Vickery was on the Off the Ball last Wednesday to discuss the dismissal as well, blaming politics for the departure of Menezes.  Brazil is at a crossroads, having to choose between reclaiming their heritage or continuing with the current over physical, counter attacking approach.  With the reappointment of Scolari the latter has been chosen, and his task will be build another “family” and lead the Seleção to glory on home soil.

News of an expanded 64 team Champions League hit the interwebs last week leading to the usual moaning and groaning from fans and media.  I think Iain Macintosh’s post on ESPN FC was spot on, identifying the old adage—follow the money.  The loss of the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup has brought the game to the point where undoing the last 20 years is impossible.  The fact that this year’s Champions League Group Stages have been interesting just masks the fact that usually they aren’t and that 16 groups of four teams will be super tedious.  If only the group winner progressed, there might be some value, but inevitably the current 16 team knockout will morph into the 32 team knockout, which will start earlier and earlier into each new year, packing the fixture list even more.  This is a horrible idea and will hopefully kill the golden goose, so that real reform can happen.  Doubt it.

Staying with Europe, Christoph recounted German football during the 1970’s on his blog, An Old International.  He recapped the bribery scandal early in the decade, which affected the image of the emerging league but also allowed the country to move forward.  This release led to unprecedented success for clubs and the national team.  Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach dominated the league, winning eight of the 10 domestic titles, and also conquered Europe with Die Roten winning three European Cups and BMG winning two UEFA Cups.  Plus the Nationalmannschaft won the 1972 European Championship and then claimed the 1974 World Cup before losing out to Czechoslovakia in the 1976 European Championship Final.  Great read and thanks to Peter Alegi for the link.

Finally, Matt Reece, a fellow member of Mid Michigan United shared this amazing freestyling video on my Facebook timeline.  After watching it, a couple of things struck me.  1. Mind blowing skills, but it does sort of come across as someone with too much free time.  2.  I only take my clothes off for the ladies and never in public.  3.  What the Michael Jackson song???  Anyway give it watch and see if you can even do one thing that guy did.

Old Futbol Buffet–Diamonds are a Reds’ Best Friend

After gorging myself last Saturday on soccer, I took the day off and got some stuff done around the house and on the blog and tried to watch an entire season of Community.  Sunday, however, I headed up to the pub for Newcastle United v Manchester United and FC Barcelona v Real Madrid.

Newcastle United 0  Manchester United 3

What a start.  The passion and drive were stunning; a complete turnaround from last week.  Sir Alex went with a younger and more energetic midfield, playing in an unbalanced diamond, and put Newcastle under pressure from the off.  You would have made a ton of money if you had taken Evans and Evra to score for Manchester United.  But the Magpies responded by getting the ball wide, stretching the MUFC diamond and taking hold of the game.  Plus the lack of possession, a higher line of confrontation and more pressure kept the Reds from extending their lead until late.

United’s first three minutes of the second half were what I expected.  Keep the ball, go cagey and grind it out.  And then everything almost went wrong.  Cisse might have been a little hard done by as his effort was cleared off the line by De Gea.  Still can’t say for sure that the entire ball was in, but the young Spaniard created the controversial moment.  There were two defenders there to handle it, and there was no reason for him to get involved.  NUFC continued to press, but to no avail, and then the proverbial bolt from the blue occurred as Cleverley with a shot-cum-cross put the game out of reach.

Despite the midfield changes, the goals came from set pieces and a moment of magic.  That’s a little worrying as few actual chances were created from the run of play, so there is still work to be done.  The key now for Fergie is to find a midfield balance that can control the entire field.

Couple of other notes. . .

  • Saw the best and worst of Rafael.  At the beginning of the match, he took a difficult goal kick out of the air, tight on the sideline, and combined down the line, which led to a stinging shot.  Then just before halftime, he gives a shit pass to RvP and is caught out.  Nothing came of it, but still.  He is getting better but is still prone to the occasional error that will be punished against better opposition.
  • Evans on the deck was worrisome, with the lack of depth and injuries mounting in defense.  With Vidic out, the pairing of Evans and Rio will have to get the Reds through.  If either of them go out, then Carrick may be called back into the backline, a move that could have damaging ripple effects throughout the team.
  • De Gea was still shaky on crosses.  Hard to see him cementing a spot if he can’t improve this aspect.  For now, I think he should stay on the line and let his defenders handle set pieces and trust that his reactions will save the day.

Ed Harrison, writing for NUFC blog, saw his beloved Newcastle come up second best in Sunday’s match.  I didn’t realize that the backline was makeshift, which, along with some poor marking, led to the opening goals.  The Magpies fought back, but the slow start and the non-awarded goal put the game beyond reach.  In a separate post, he identified the lack of depth and areas that need strengthening as Newcastle look to build on last season’s finish.

Nik and Doron reviewed the game for Streford End, examining how Fergie’s use of the diamond formation impacted the match.  This, combined with an energetic approach, led to United taking control of the game and settling into some sort of 4-5-1 in the defensive phase to close it out. High marks were given to Evra and Cleverley, while there is still some doubt over de Gea in goal.

Scott the Red from the Republik of Mancunia enjoyed a fine performance from the Reds, starting in the back.  Well not necessarily with De Gea but the back four.  Totally agree with him that Welbeck needs to finish off the chances that he creates for himself with his endeavor and that others set up for him through their interplay.  Rooney got Man of the Match.  He was good and put in a decent shift but I don’t know that he was the best player.  This might have been an instance where the team was so in tune with each other that no one player deserved it more than another.

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking broke the game down into three phases—United’s diamond establishing control; Newcastle’s reshuffle to a 4-5-1 to bring them back into the match; and Fergie’s alternation to a 4-5-1 in order to regain control.  The game was won in the opening 15 minutes and once the hour mark came with no goals from Newcastle, United saw the game out, with Cleverley’s audacious effort as icing on the cake.

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Articles and Pods

I have only watched one Juventus game thus far this season—2-2 draw away at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League.  I wrestled with where to put my time as a fan in this summer, and Juve has suffered.  I am keeping an eye on results and was glad that they crushed Roma in the previous round and came back against Siena to extend their impressive 46 game unbeaten streak in Serie A.

I follow several of the crew from Juventiknows on twitter so when they pushed a post on the tactical evolution of the Old Lady, I gave it a read.  Ratul’s synopsis is concise and informative.  Conte maintained flexibility throughout last season and his transformation from a 4-4-2 to 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 allowed a balance to be struck that brought the most out of the squad, which resulted in a Scudetto and near domestic double.  Highly recommend the post, especially as it examines the equation of tactics, technique and personality.

Antonio Labbate wondered what happened to the mystique around the #10 jersey in Italy in one of his recent posts for Football Italia.  #10 for me will always be associated with Alessandro del Piero and to a lesser extent Francesco Totti in Serie A.  As I thought about it, I had a hard time identifying legendary #10’s for Manchester United and FC Barcelona.  Off the top of my head I couldn’t name one over the last five to ten years.  (After a little thinking, Sheringham and Rivaldo.)

Phil and Doron had Tom Clare on the latest Manchester United pod for Beyond the Pitch.  Tom has written several books on United’s history and shared his thoughts on where the club has been and where it is going.  With his wealth of history and insight, it was a fascinating listen.

Robert Andrew Powell was on Off the Ball last week (10/4) to talk about his new book This Love is not for Cowards, which recounted his time in Juarez, Mexico—the murder capital of the world.  Fascinating account that described the safest place to be: a soccer stadium.

Finally, Anto and Nico had Ives Galarcep on Beyond the Pitch to look at the MLS stretch run, which sees San Jose enter the tournament as favorites but threatened by the Galaxy.  Plus is this the season Seattle makes progress?  And what to make of New York Red Bull?  Good stuff from all involved as usual.

Morbo Minute–Los Blancos Sing the Azulones

Another weekend of goals and intriguing results in La Liga, with the champions suffering against Getafe while Rayo continued their 100% record.  Valencia drew again and FCB is on the horizon for Los Che, with the Blaugrana making hard work of it against Osasuna.  In the final match of the round, Atleti crushed Bilbao 4-0 to put Los Leones rock bottom of the league.

Real Betis 1 Rayo Vallecano 2

Saturday night saw me try to expand my La Liga knowledge as I watched the replay of Real Betis against Rayo Vallecano.  Didn’t know the result and didn’t have a rooting interest for each side, so just watched the game to see what these two teams had to offer.

The first half saw a spellbinding opening 15 minutes:  two goals in the first four minutes, and then each team hit the woodwork with excellent strikes.  Real Betis came out in what looked like a 4-3-3 and pressured Rayo all over the field, with the visitors replying with some sort of 4-5-1 and composed possession.  The great start to the match eventually wore off and set the template for the rest of the match—moments of quality amongst a series of cynical and professional fouls.

The second half saw Betis on the front foot but a lack of urgency in front of goal saw nothing come of their dominance.  Rayo’s composure and interplay of the first half seemed to have disappeared and they were just hanging on to a draw, but everything changed on 62 minutes.  A Betis turnover in midfield allowed Leo to start the counter with a ball out wide left to Lass.  Leo supported his pass, maintained his balance and slotted the ball under the keeper, who probably should have done better.  It was a well deserved goal for his efforts, and I really enjoyed watching him, as he was full of running, decent going at people and his flicks and first time passing allowed Rayo to create several chances, including the opening goal.

Once Rayo went ahead, they were back on track, keeping the ball away from the hosts and letting time tick away.  The movement and crispness of the opening half returned and they looked quite good at time.  Los Verdiblancos reacted by driving forward with a lot of energy but little sharpness, almost trying to equalize by sheer force of will, which was not enough

A couple of other player notes:

  • Salvador: The Betis midfielder was like a Portuguese Theo Walcott: one direction one speed, very little finished product .
  • Benat:  Thought he had a good match, particularly in the first half with his passing and creativity giving the hosts some sort of direction.
  • Campbell:  Guess he is on loan from Arsenal.  Thought he gave Betis a little impetus upon his introduction.
  • Lass:  Critical sub as his pace really unbalanced Betis their right hand side.  Looking to see more of him.
  • Trashorras:  Just love his name.
  • Casado:  The left back for Rayo was sure on the ball, usually finding the right pass, but his defending left a little to be desired.

Both teams went for it, which was enjoyable for the neutral, but the lack of quality in front of goal kept the game from really hitting the heights.  As the game wore on, the fouls and dark arts became prominent and the game eventually petered out with three points to the visitors.

Adam at Forever Betis found it hard to find the positives in the match, starting his post with Betis looked tentative, lightweight and rudderless right from the start and were deservedly beaten by a competent Rayo side.  He was especially critical of the keeper among other players as the home side were undone.

Osasuna 1 FC Barcelona 2

After church I headed into work so that I could get on the internet, find an illegal feed and join the match late.  Finding a feed and getting my computer to cooperate took much longer that I had anticipated, so I missed the first half.  I got caught up via highlights and analysis on Sky and sat down for the second half.  It was like watching the Chelsea Champions League semi all over again as the Blaugrana hit their head against a wall that would not crumble.  There was a lack of sharpness and drive combined with a team determined to hold on to their lead.  Eventually the substitutions of Pedro, Xavi and Villa tipped the balance and FCB ran out winners.  But let this not mask the fact that the team is not cohesive, especially in defense.  With Puyol out for a little while (maybe not), Masch will probably return to the side, so we’ll see if this changes things.  If I were a Spanish side I would sign Fellaini and let him terrorize the back line as he did against United on the opening weekend.

Kxevin at the Barcelona Football Blog recapped a match that was crazy in so many ways: crazy in the way Osasuna executed their game plan to near perfection; crazy in how so many Barca players were off the pace; crazy in the way subs can totally change a match.  FCB had a tricky fixture in between the Super Cup and survived.  With Real Madrid on Wednesday and Valencia next weekend, fans will see if Tito can continue to navigate a tough of fixtures.

 

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Articles and Pods

Phil Ball reviewed a busy four days in Spain, starting with an entertaining Super Cup first leg to Real’s shocking defeat against Getafe.  He picked out several players that caught his eye: Benat from Betis, Iago from Celta Vigo, Leo Baptistao from Rayo.

Graham Hunter was on Off the Ball last week (8/26) and discussed the situation at Athletic Bilbao, as the work done by Bielsa last season is unraveling.  Part of it is the club’s negotiations with Llorente and Martinez and part of it is the antics of the coach, but the club is in real trouble after a season of promise.

As for the Champions, Madridista Mac wondered if the alarm bells should be ringing as Real has started the season without a win.  With CR7 and Ozil not in top form, Los Merengues have suffered, losing the lead in all three matches and not having the answers at the end of matches.  Of course by this time next week, they could be Super Cup champions and on four points (with a home win over Granada), just behind FCB who could conceivably lose to Valencia.  But defeats in both . . .

Iain at El Centrocampista echoed concerns about Real Madrid’s start after the defeat, with Euro 2012, the US tour and player choices all listed as factors.  One thing that I did not consider was Albiol on for the injured Pepe.  Surely Mou won’t throw Varane into the fire on Wednesday but must consider using him on the weekend.

Finally, the Champions signed Luka Modric, ending a long saga that surely took too long and may not pay off for a while due to lack of games for the Croatian.  Sid Lowe took a look at Real Madrid’s newest signing for the Guardian, while Terry Gibson gave his thoughts on the transfer on La Liga Extra.

To wrap everything up, the panel at Inside Spanish Football commented on most of the weekend’s action from round 2, looking at key moments and players before moving on to their team of the week.

Old Futbol Buffet–Champions Again and Again and Again

Once again, for person who prides himself on organization and planning, I got it all horribly wrong.

What a week.  The majority of the week was spent preparing and executing the Annual Franchise Meeting for BIGGBY COFFEE, which is a lot of work and quite exhausting.  So what did I follow it up with?  A weekend of relaxation?  A massage and pedi?  Hell no.  Onwards and upwards.

Friday night I hosted a poker party that went until 2am.  I lost most of my money, as usual, but it was still a great time.  After a couple of hours sleep, cleaned up the mess that was made, then got ready for our latest community event, which entailed setting up hundreds of feet of hose and two ginormous tarps.  Following an afternoon of splashes and laughs, took a deserved nap and then woke up with literally nothing to do.  I went up to Claddagh’s and watched the first half of the United/Fulham game before switching to Real Betis v Rayo Vallecano.

RvP and Kagawa opened their United accounts and the finished product that was lacking against Everton arrived.  Truly dominating 45 minutes and with Rooney out for a month, the future of United could develop before our eyes.

Sunday was supposed to be an epic day of footy.  11am Liverpool/City then walk over for the MSU men against New Hampshire to be followed by my over 30 game, a tension filled clash against old rivals for the league championship.

And then the starting time of church got changed and everything started to unravel.

I missed the double header, which was disappointing on several levels.  I was involved in the planning and the event was the culmination of several months of hard work and could provide the launching off point for Lansing soccer culture.  But what are you going to do.  I did get to see the second half of the Barcelona game.

I finished the day playing in my over 30 game.  The weather was quite hot and after a week of meetings, drinking and stressing, I was not in the best shape.  I had not touched a ball or done any fitness since the previous week’s game so I was not sure what my contribution would be.  Our team started fast but couldn’t capitalize and as our opponents came into the game, the sense of dread began to build.  Halftime arrived with the match scoreless although we two chances on the goal line.

The second half started with us on top but again no goals.  The post was hit, the ball bounced around the goal, shots went wide; everything but in the goal.  Then it happened.  One of our attacks was cleared to the outside, their midfielder bent a ball around our defense, and their forward ran onto it and put it away.  We were down 1-0 and a loss would see the title go to the Arsenal.

We ramped up the pressure and again no dice.  Finally, one of our corner kicks was cleared to the top of the area and our center back smashed a shot through the crowd and into the back of the net.  1-1, a draw was good enough due to our superior goal differential.  So back to back league titles and on to the playoffs.

Now it’s back to work.  With Labor Day ahead of us and no plans, should have time to watch plenty of games, which will be nice.

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Other Stuff

Off the Ball had Philippe AuClair on last Thursday (8/23) to discuss PSG, where the recipe is not going quite to plan.

Roger Bennett’s latest column for Soccernet echoed the dilemma I was faced with this summer—the nature of the soccer/football fan.  Are true fans the ones at the ground week in or week out or can fandom reach across an ocean due to the wonders of the internet and cable/satellite television?

Old Futbol Buffet–The Easter Bunny stole my football

I only saw about 15 minutes of footy last weekend, but it was the most important 15 minutes.

I didn’t get up in time on Saturday morning to watch Spurs v Sunderland, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the 90 minutes did not provide any goals.  Spooky lamented the lack of energy and tempo in his wrap up at Dear Mr Levy.  None of the 10am ET games interested me, so my wife and I packed up for a four drive to Columbus, Ohio to pick up my son, who was Spring Break, and visit my sister.

This trip meant that I missed the Palermo/Juventus and Real Zaragoza/FC Barcelona games.  During pit stops I would check scores and was thrilled to see the Old Lady and the Blaugrana win their respective matches.  Juventus now lead the Serie A table by one point and control the destiny of the scudetto.  Bonucci’s goal was all about wanting it more than anyone else and Quags scored a deserved second after all of his work coming back from injury. Barcelona came back from an early goal to cut the margin to three behind Real Madrid and keep the pressure on.  Los Merengues could only draw at home against Valencia and the margin is now four points with El Clasico two weeks away.

On Sunday, we attended the Easter Service at my sister’s church, which meant I missed Manchester United v QPR and Arsenal v Manchester City.  Now only that, I would miss the watch party at the local pub back in Lansing. But we walked into the restaurant, and, to my surprise, the TV was showing Arsenal v City in glorious HD.  I was put in a quandary.  Do I spend time with the family or watch a key moment in the English title race?  I tried to do both.  After craning to see the TV, I finally just got up and stood in front of the TV.  Arsenal were in a period of dominance but lacked the final ball.  Then all of the sudden a City turnover was pounced by Arteta who lashed a shot into the bottom corner to give the Gunners the lead.  At the moment I took the fork I was using and metaphorically stuck in the blue side of Manchester.

But the star of the weekend has to be Clint Dempsey, who scored two fantastic goals in Fulham’s win.  His free kick was pure magic and his intelligent movement made the second goal an easy header into the back of the net.  Can he possibly remain at Craven Cottage next season?

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Podcasts

The SI Soccer Roundtable panel looked ahead to the Champions League Semi Finals, with some disagreement about whether Bayern Munich are heavy underdogs or legitimate contenders.  Plus there was a quick of review of early MLS stories including KC’s unbeaten start and Galaxy’s rough opening weeks.

Jonathan Wilson was back on Off the Ball on Thursday to discuss Sunderland’s form since Martin O’Neill took over for Steve Bruce.  The stats are pretty similar but the points earned are the real difference as the Black Cats have climbed into the top half and have proved a handful for top teams.

Old Futbol Buffet–Manchester 2 London 0

This weekend was another feast of footy.  I got started early, taking the day off on Friday and heading over to Soccer Zone for lunch time drop in soccer.  From there, I took in as much as I could.

Friday

Earlier this summer I came across Ty Schalter’s post about the US Men’s National Team after one of several debacles during the Gold Cup.  Little did I know that this was his first post on footy and that he was an expert on American Football, particularly the Detroit Lions.  I added him to my twitter timeline, and through his tweets was able to talk semi-intelligently (my fault, not his) with my Lions friends.  Last week he posted that he was going to a local indoor soccer facility to try to play the game he had discovered.  The result was this post, which I highly encourage you to check out.  Anyway, I asked him how it went and that I would try to get out there.  My Friday opened up and off I went.  True to his word he was wearing his 2010 USMNT Away jersey with Dempsey on the back.  I brought my personalized jersey (JUNIOR #7) of the same year and joined in.  Great guy with a desire to learn about the game.  Check him out on twitter (@lionsinwinter) and on his blog.

It has been years since I’ve played pick up at Soccer Zone but not much has changed.  Too many people on the field, too much dribbling, too much of another language.  The teams were dominated by Hispanics, which is fine but they do enjoy dribbling, which is fine at the beginning when everyone is full of energy.  By the end, it just becomes a series of 1 v 1 battles and counter attacks.  In the end, it was a good run, and thank goodness I knew a couple of people so that at least I would get a pass once in a while.  Afterwards, I headed to the bar to watch Borussia Monchengladbach against Bayern Munich.

Borussia Monchengladbach 3  Bayern Munich 1

I didn’t know anything about BMG but now I know: Marco Reus.  (Raphael Honigstein examined the move of Reus to Dortmund instead of Munich.)  Slight but quick, he terrorized the visitors every time he got the ball.  He opened the scoring after a comical clearance from Neuer and then pulled the strings the rest of the match, setting up the third as the hosts crushed the winter break leaders.  Die Roten were blunt in front of goal with very few ideas and chances, as Gomez had a decent header saved and the goalkeeper saved a long range shot in the first half.  In the second half, Jupp Heynckes brought in more attackers but it made little difference.  BMG just sat farther and farther back to hold the visitors at arms length and eased to victory.  I have no idea how the Bundesliga title will end, and really don’t have time to keep track of it, but the league is filled with very talented players that will soon be playing for Bayern or another big time in a big league.

Uli Hesse looked at who might be pulling the strings in an unbelievably dramatic Bundesliga season, with three teams tied for first and another just one point behind.

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Saturday

I had been checking scores throughout the day, so I knew that Chelsea had drawn and that Deuce had scored a hat trick, and I headed up to the bar for the Juventus game, forgetting that Liverpool was playing Bolton.  I looked up at the screen and ignored the bartender as I stared at a score that could not possibly be true: Bolton 3 Liverpool 1.  After the shock wore off, I looked around and saw a man in red with his face buried his hot cider.  “Tough day at the office?” I asked.  “What?  Yeah.”  And that is how I met Roger, a Liverpool fan in pain.  He told me he wasn’t even disappointed in the result and that the team is beyond words.  We talked through several tactical and player adjustments, but Liverpool’s current situation is beyond me.

Atalanta 0 Juventus 2

It had been several weeks since I had seen The Old Lady live, so I wanted to see how Conte’s men were doing.  They got off to a great start with Pepe dragging his shot past the far post early.  Then utter despair set in for me and several Juventini I follow on twitter.  There was about a 15 minute stretch that was truly painful to watch.  Desperate defending, horrible possession (literally could not put three passes together) and a lack of energy.  Atalanta were on top and the ball was bouncing dangerously around the Juve penalty area, usually cleared by Chiellini.  But ten minutes from the interval, the Bianconeri started moving through the gears, creating several dangerous chances, and looking a much better prospect.  Would this be a sign of things to come or just a momentarily blip?  Turns out it was the former.

Juventus came out firing and were finally rewarded after ten minutes, Pirlo crafted himself some space to deliver a simply wonderful ball to the far post that Lichtsteiner headed home to give the visitors the lead.  A moment of genius and quality.  Juve built on their pressure and were in the ascendency but did not land the killer punch (Matri was particularly wasteful) while looking susceptible to a low blow (see last week’s game).  Pepe had to be subbed after an injury and on come Marrone.  Ten minutes from time, he surprised everyone with a flick through the Atalanta rearguard that Giaccherini dutifully scored to put the game beyond doubt.  A truly beautiful goal.

The Old Lady are Winter Champions.  Hollow title.  The title is far from decided but say what you want, Conte has done everything he can to bring silverware back to Turin.  Here’s hoping that the shield is sown on the famous black and white jersey next season.  (And that Juve are one step closer to the third star).

Marco and Aaron at Juventiknows commented on Juventus’ latest victory.  Juventus were in control, especially for the last 55 minutes but I feel that the poor section in the first half was ignored.  I still don’t get what Vidal does but obviously it’s something.  One red flag the guys raised was fatigue and that will be critical to the Old Lady’s chances, especially if they go on any sort of Cup run.

Paolo Bandini remarked on Juventus’ position thus far in the season, noting several key factors—coaching, hard work, and the emergence of several players.

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Sunday

So I put together a watch party at the local party for Epic Sunday (Fox’s ad campaign for the day).  Had a nice turnout and it was fun to watch the game with fans of different rooting interests, whether that be in the teams or players for their fantasy teams.

Manchester City 3  Tottenham Hotspur 2

Spurs needed at least a draw to keep their title hopes alive, and a win would turn the title chase on its head.  The first half was awful, being the very definition of cagey, but the second half had it all—goals, ref decisions, and drama.  City got up 2-0 as Spurs lost the organization that had kept them in the match, yet responded by capitalizing on a mistake by Savic and equalizing on a wonderful goal by Bale.  The game was creeping towards the end with both teams content sharing the points when disaster struck.  City lumped the ball into the penalty area and once the ball bounced there was only one outcome: King scissored Balotelli who stepped up and converted the penalty to win the three points.  All this despite the fact that the Italian should have been sent off earlier for a foul on Parker.  Devastating loss for Spurs who did well to recover.  What remains to be seen is if they are the Valencia of England, the best of the rest (ie third) but not a title contender.

Arsenal 1 Manchester United 2

Piers Morgan was fantastic on the FOX pregame, using the word “we”, ignoring Eric Wynalda and bringing a passion to the pre-game festivities.  The first half that followed was a slightly less cagey version of the City/Spurs game, with United grabbing a goal just on the stroke of halftime when Giggs found Valencia at the far post.  The second half was enthralling as Arsenal rallied to put United on the back foot, creating an end to end game that was decided on two mistakes.  The Gunners equalizer came through Rafael’s action going forward.  His decision was fine; his execution was poor.  When he got into the penalty area, he needed to create a goal, a goal kick or a corner kick.  Instead he got tackled, lost the ball, and the resulting counter attack led to RvP’s goal in the area Rafael had vacated.  Arsenal deserved a goal and got it through a United error instead of their play.  Then Wenger subbed Chamberlain for Arshavin.  Why?  If anything, he should have subbed off Walcott, as the England International created havoc but couldn’t cross, pass or shoot.  Shortly after coming on, the Russian was tortured by Valencia, who came inside him pretty easily, got a return pass from Park and found Welbeck who slammed the ball home from close range.  Based on the Oxe’s play, I doubt that would have happened if he had been on the field, but Wenger defended the decision afterwards. Gunners fans have to be scratching their heads about the Professor’s decisions.

As for United, Jones’ injury looked serious, only because it was self-inflicted.  There have been conflicting reports about whether it is a knee or an ankle.  If he goes down, I fear for United’s challenges on several fronts.  Basically they will be down to Smalling and Evans in the back, and some sort of Giggs, Scholes and Carrick combo in the middle.  It will take some real smoke and mirrors to win the title with those players.  Also, there was some conversation around the bar about where Chicharito was.  Not worried.  Fergie is going to ride Welbeck for as long as he can.  The Mexican will still have a say this season, it will just be after Welbeck’s run is over.

At The Republik of Mancunia, spirits were high after the game against Arsenal, with key contributions overcoming an inspired side and several injuries.  Even they had a word to say about the Arshavin sub as everyone gets their boot in to Arsene.

Zonal Marking reviewed the game and concluded that Ferguson got things right over the 90 minutes while Wenger played the cards he was dealt but may have made critical errors in his substitutions.

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Podcasts

The Off the Ball pods were solid last week.  On Wednesday, the guys had Leighton James on to discuss the new Welsh National Team coach Chris Coleman, and Rapheal Honingstein informed listeners on Cisse, who signed for Newcastle, as well as some additional background on this year’s surprise Demba Ba.  Graham Hunter made his usual appearance on Thursday to reflect on yet another El Clasico and the possible futures of each club, and Martin Lipton to talk about John Terry’s legal situation.

Roger and Michael looked back on the issues of the EPL from the previous week on the Men in Blazers pod that will be quickly forgotten after another round of action.  Roger also talked his trip to the San Siro for the Milan Derby, which seemed to be more entertaining for the fans rather than the game itself.  I drank Boddingtons during the United game as a tribute.

The panel on the latest World Football Phone In talked about the legacy of the African Cup of Nations and World Cups for hosts countries; Beckham staying in the US; George John’s loan from MLS to West Ham; the quality of play at the African Cup of Nations; and FIFA’s failed World Cup rotation policy.