(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.
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.