Monday, January 29, 2007

Poor Marco

(Warning: this post will have precious little Atlanta/college football content.)

I genuinely feel for Marco Materazzi. He's apparently going to be marked for the rest of his career as a target for headbutting. What I especially love about this clip is that Gennaro Delvecchio obviously nails Materazzi in the face and then goes nuts when he gets the easiest red card that a ref will ever have to dole out. And poor Marco got a yellow card for his trouble, just as he was also punished for being the target of Zinedine Zidane's rhino impersonation. And one final note: was I the only one who immediately thought of this:

Other thoughts as I transition my attention from one football to the other:


Is there anything that makes a sports fan feel as queasy as when your team wins on a dreadful call? Check out the penalty that Barca drew to break a 1-1 tie against Celta Vigo yesterday (at the 1:00 mark of the video):

Sure, that was a penalty...if you overlook the fact that Gio almost certainly dove to draw it and the "contact" was outside of the box. I spent the remainder of the game rationalizing the call away. Yes, Barcelona had dominated the game and were only level because of a questionable penalty decision at the other end on what was one of Celta's only forays forward. Yes, Barca stood a good chance of getting the second goal anyway. And still, I couldn't quite get past the fact that Barca had to use unfair means to get the winning goal.

Speaking of Gio, the game yesterday illustrated everything that's good and bad about his game. On the good side, he "drew" the winning penalty (he at least deserves credit for making a dangerous run into the box) and sent in a fantastic cross for Saviola to head home the opener. He also got a second ball into the box that led to Ronaldinho overhead kicking a pass for Xavi to shoot (watch the video if you don't believe me). On the other hand, both of Celta's good chances in the game came through his side, which is a disturbing pattern for Barca that has shown itself consistently even as the team has conquered Spain and Europe in the past two seasons. The defensive lapses on the left are more notable this year because Barca has struggled to get consistent production from Carles Puyol's partners in central defense. Lilian Thuram has been decent at times, but he was weak in the loss at Real Madrid and seems frustrated with his playing time. Rafa Marquez isn't close to the player he was last year (he was especially dreadful against Espanyol), possibly because of World Cup hangover and possibly because the acquisition of Thuram has unsettled him. That leaves Oleguer, who is more of a defensive handyman than he is an ace central defender.

The interesting tactical change that Barca made yesterday was that they gave Giuly the day off and played Andres Iniesta as the right-sided winger. Iniesta is a central midfielder, but he did nicely in the winger role. He isn't as fast as Giuly, but his passing is much better and he created excellent changes on a couple occasions. The interesting implication from the move is that it could make Leo Messi expendable. Well, not expendable but if Inter is really going to make some sort of ludicrous offer of one-quarter of the Italian economy for Messi, then Iniesta's ability to play the position factors into the decision. If Inter is willing to break the bank for Messi, such that Barca could pay for, say, Daniel Alves from Sevilla, Alex from PSV, and an unsettled Michael Ballack from Chelsea with the proceeds, then you have to consider making that move. Messi is a fantastic player and there's something to be said for keeping someone who came up through the youth ranks and would feel loyal to Barca because he came to the city in the first place because the club paid for his treatment for growth hormone deficiency, not to mention someone who has an understanding with Ronaldinho and routinely plays lights out in the biggest games, but he does have trouble staying healthy.


I thought that I would enjoy Chelsea's attempt to wrest the "F.C. Hollywood" title from Bayern Munich, but in reality, it has just made me sympathetic to Jose Mourinho and that gives me all sorts of shaky feelings. Mourinho is absolutely right in his dispute with the Chelsea board. The club are woefully short of depth in central defense after selling William Gallas and Robert Huth in the off-season and Mourinho can't win when he's forced to start Paolo Ferreira and Mickael Essien in central defense. Moreover, Chelsea's management structure reminds me of everything that is bad about the New York Yankees: an owner who meddles, guided by a series of competing advisors who are pulling the team in all sorts of different directions with the end result being a confused approach that leaves the coach flailing. And the worst part is that the instability will likely send Mourinho to Real Madrid, where he would pose a threat to Barca. (On the other hand, if Fabio Capello can't sort Madrid out and he has a record of winning that rivals Mourinho's [and over a longer timeframe, to boot], there are more fundamental issues going on in Madrid.) The other factor that causes me to not enjoy Chelsea's decline is the fact that Manchester United are the ones benefiting.

On an unrelated note, I have started dreading FA Cup weekends because all of the good games are on Setanta, which no one gets, and I'm left with gems like Chelsea-Nottingham Forest (a 3-0 nailbiter) and Spurs-Southend (a 4-0 squeaker). I know the FA Cup is supposed to be romantic because these tiny teams get to play the big boys, but upsets are so rare that you have to watch ten games to see one that's even mildly interesting. It's like watching the 1-16 games in the NCAA Tournament, only Fox Soccer Channel can't switch away when Chelsea are 2-0 up after 20 minutes.

Champions League

I'm confident that ESPN will not show any of the Inter-Valencia tie because the teams don't have big Q-ratings here, but that is shaping up to be the best tie when the Champions League restarts in February. Like Chelsea-Barca last year, this match-up is between the two form teams in Europe at the moment, such that the winner is likely to be the favorite going forward. Inter has won a ludicrous 14 straight games in Serie A and hasn't lost a game in any competition since a September 27 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Valencia are playing extremely well in the Primera right now and they looked great even in a loss at Betis yesterday. They also have a good pedigree in the Champions League. Inter, in contrast, do not have a great pedigree in Europe, but they didn't in Serie A (at least recently) and that has hardly mattered this year.

The other top contenders are Barca (although the defense isn't confidence-inspiring at present), Chelsea (once John Terry is healthy and especially if Shevchenko continues to show signs of life), Lyon, and Arsenal. You would think that Manchester United would be a serious threat, given their record in the Premiership, but I can't get past the fact that they make so little effort to score away from home against quality opposition. I can easily see them going out to someone on road goals. Liverpool would normally scare me because of their recent history in tournaments, but that image took a hit when Arsenal undressed them in the Carling and FA Cups at Anfield. The Gunners have taken the Scousers' mantle as the team that plays well in knock-out tournaments, but can't string consistent performances together in the league.


LD said...

A quibble...

The Gunners have taken the Scousers' mantle as the team that plays well in knock-out tournaments, but can't string consistent performances together in the league.

Liverpool's but one point ahead of Arsenal (and behind on goal differential if it were to come down to it). Arsenal haven't exactly been falling apart domestically. There was the bad loss at Sheff U, but that's their only loss over their last 10 league matches. Their last domestic match was a win over the current league leaders. Compare Liverpool and Arsenal's performances against Blackburn (another team on a decent stretch) recently:

Arsenal 6 Blackburn 2 (Dec 23)
Blackburn 1 Liverpool 0 (Dec 26)
Blackburn 0 Arsenal 2 (Jan 13)

Domestically in January, Arsenal had 3 matches, 3 wins. The only one that was close was the Man U game - and they're the class of England.

So while, yes, I think you might have a point in that Liverpool hasn't been able to pull off wins in knockout tournaments, I'm not sure I agree with the view towards Arsenal domestically. Arsenal has a relatively easy stretch (nobody in the top 6 for the next 2 months, only on the road against 1 top 10 team - Everton) coming up. If the form they've had in the Premiership over the last month holds up, it wouldn't suprise me one bit to see them inch ahead of Liverpool (who has been playing very well domestically) and even get close to Chelsea.

Michael said...

Arsenal are enjoying a purple patch right now, but they're the same club that lost to Sheffield United, Fulham, and West Ham (not to mention the loss to CSKA in the Champions League). That's the difference between them and ManUtd and Chelsea right now. They're capable of beating the best, but they lack consistency, possibly because they're a young team that hasn't learned yet how to get up for a game against Sheffield. You have to narrow the sample size to conclude that they don't have a problem against the minnows. Maybe they've solved the problem. We'll find out this month when they play a bunch of smaller opponents.

LD said...

I'll wait for Kanu to come around to debate it further, but only one of those losses (Sheff U) you cite happened in the last 2 months. And it was on the road. And it was the third of three games in the crowded Christmas/Boxing Day week (back to back on the road) - and their seventh premiership game of the month. I'm not sure I'd read all that much into it, as it seemed a lot more the result of circumstances than a pattern.

Going back further, the West Ham loss also featured suspect officaiting (Van Persie was struck by a coin on the field and brought down in the box without penalty). It was also on the road.

The Fulham loss was probably the worst of the year, but it was still by just one goal (though it could've been more), Arsenal finished with 10 men, and again, it was on the road.

Road losses sometimes happen. And none of those losses were by more than a goal - a bounce here, a whistle there and they could've won all three.

The loss to CSKA (aside from being inappositie to your initial point about how Arsenal plays well in tournaments but not too well domestically) was three and a half months ago, on the road (Moscow's never easy to play in), in freezing cold temperatures, and would've been a draw if not for a suspect ruling on Henry's equalizer late in the game.

I guess the main thing I'm thinking is that (1) Arsenal might be a little better than their place in the table right now; and (2) I'm not ready to think that the league has been decided at all just yet. I really think things might tighten up over the next few months, especially with more crowded fixture calendars due to the Champions' League and the cups. I'm just not ready to say this season is a wash for Arsenal just yet, especially when they're 3-0-1 against the top three so far.

Kanu said...

First off, great writeup and analysis- you should remind yourself to pontificate on footie more often.

GVB is definitely one of those "good going forward but a liability defending" backs, which is most likely down to the fact that he played most of his career as a midfielder (Rangers, Arsenal -although I think most of his Holland career has been in the back) but he definitely seems a midfielder converted to back rather than a true defender.

As for The Arse:

I think you are both right: Michael in a sense of looking at the overall 05-06 season to date (5 home draws, against Villa, Boro, Everton, Newcastle, Portsmouth, road losses to Man Citeh, Pressed Ham Fulham, Bolton, and of course Sheffield Utd) and LD noting the marked improvement over the last month. The frustration against throwing away so many points earlier against teams they should have beat (especially at home) is only augmented by watching them go toe-to-toe and beat the other top teams. The future looks bright, especially watching the kids (damn Denilson looked good in the Carling Cup matches - I think he will make it), I think it is just a matter of gaining experience which will result in eliminating a lot of this dropping points against the lesser clubs. As LD pointed out we're already seeing the beginning of this, but I'm sure they will drop some more points during the run in that on paper look like fairly easy wins. Wenger summed it up very well just this weekend:

"You need the strength to stand up because you know that when you put them in the team, they will make mistakes and you will get hammered. You can only pay for their education with points that you lose. Tony Adams at 16 made mistakes. At 30, he hardly made any."

Last week I was thinking that Arsenal would not only pass Liverpool but that they would also end up passing Chel$ea and finishing 2nd, mainly because of the marked improvement on the level of play which begets confidence which should beget more great play. This combined with the fact that Chel$ea are such a soap opera right now I would not be surprised to see them drop alot more points in the next 6 weeks and meltdown completely (although their sheer magnitude of talent should prevent total freefall). They are an absolute mess at the back without Terry and with the aptly named Hilario in goal. Anyhow, now I'm not so sure that Arsenal will finish 2nd because of the combination of fixture congestion (4 competitions, and now an FA Cup replay with Bolton) and injuries - Van Persie is likely done for the year, Hleb just got hurt, Baptista hurt his groin yesterday, Gallas is still out just to mention a few. I do think that they can finish 3rd, get that CL spot, and take their chances in the cups. If they get healthy and Chel$ea continue to drop points then all the stars & planets would have to align for them to get 2nd I think, but then again they are only 6 points behind Chel$ea with 14 matches to play.

Bigger picture, this very young Arsenal team are definitely gaining experience, gelling, and improving, and soon enough they will be a force to be reckoned with- the question is when: next year or the year after? I think that next year they can win the title, assuming that they can sign a good replacement for Mad Jens (Lehmann) who looks like he will go back to Germany in the summer.

Michael said...

This Arsenal team is mostly the same team that dropped points to numerous weak teams last year, but also conquered Real and Juve en route to the CL Final. They're following the same pattern this year. I'm much more comfortable using a 1.5-year sample size as opposed to a one-month sample size. (Taking the long view is what allowed us to avoid overreacting when the Falcons beat Pittsburgh and Cincy.) Arsenal is a very young team and they should get more consistent as they mature, but I suspect that hasn't happened overnight. Plus, they are likely going to struggle a little without RVP, who has been terrific for them this year.

I'd be very happy if Barca found a new, more defensively solid leftback to replace Gio and I've felt that for a while. He's the clear weakness on the team. Last year, it wasn't so apparent because Belletti is similar on the right: good going forward (ask Almunia), but a liability defensively. This year, with Zambrotta playing well on the right, opposing attacks seem to always come from Barca's left.

BTW, Kanu, I meant to ask you whether "Two-Nil and you fucked it up" is sung to the same tune as "Nayim from the halfway line":

Kanu said...

Again, I basically agree with what both of you are saying, you just seem to be looking at the same thing through different sized lenses.

Sounded like the standard "Go West" tune to me. These drunk fuckers sang it the same way:

Nayim - Ouch. I wonder if a very young boy in Brasil named Ronaldinho Gaucho got a hold of that tape: