Friday, May 30, 2008

FIFA Approves Blatter's Rule; or When 6+5=0

Sepp Blatter's alleged romanticism about linking domestic clubs with their locality is rank. Yes, that's the stench settling over the game today. It stems from the approval given by FIFA's Congress to the so-called 6+5 rule which puts a quota on the number of foreign players a club may field.

The FIFA boss got his way, striking a death knell for football capitalism, free trade and economics in general. Hideous. The rule would mandate that clubs can start no more than five foreign players. Incredulously, it was passed by a 155-5 margin. Thankfully, this disastrous regulation seems in conflict with EU law and could be shot down, despite Blatter's promises to make the rule work within the confines of the law.

Perhaps I'm just a financial conservative, but what gives any leader the right to impose his will over independently run organizations, some of which are public entities with influential shareholders. If Arsenal wants to run 11 Frenchmen out there, it should be within its purview to do so.

Blatter allegedly wants the rule in place in the name of sportsmanship. Franz Beckenbauer is in Blatter's corner, quoted today by Reuters:
"We have clubs in Germany where there are no German players on the field. That is not in the interest of football and its future."
Why? Club supporters could care less about a player's nationality once a jersey has been donned. All supporters care about are victories and trophies. Nationalities? That's for the Euro, Copa America, Asian Cup and World Cup.

Blatters's primary argument is the current landscape impedes the development of local talent? Oh really? Let's look at a mid-tier club such as Sporting Lisbon, one with an outstanding youth academy. The club has essentially become a feeder system for Europe's biggest clubs, Manchester United in particular. Ronaldo, Nani, Figo, Quaresma, Futre, Simao Sabrosa, Miguel Veloso all graduated from the academy, and contributed not only for the Uniteds and Barcelonas of the world, but brought trophies to Sporting.

This is the essence of any sport. Develop young talent, "exploit" it as long as possible, win while you can and seed the future. Losing young talent is an inevitability. Look at Ronaldo; is he long for United? Greener pastures are calling, and it should be within his right to seek out those pastures, as it should be United's right sell him to the highest bidder. This is the framework under which football thrives. This is the framework the 6+5 rule puts in jeopardy.

This press release on UEFA's homegrown rule points out that 6+5 is in conflict with the EU's concept of free movement of workers. The key phrase:
"Rules requiring that teams include a certain quota of 'home-grown players' could be accepted as being compatible with the Treaty [of Lisbon] provisions on free movement of persons if they do not lead to any direct discrimination based on nationality and if possible indirect discrimination effects resulting from them can be justified as being proportionate to a legitimate objective pursued, such as enhancing and protecting the training and development of talented young players'."
Here's hoping 6+5 won't fly. It's against the grain of the game. It interferes with independent ownership, is potentially discriminatory and a sham. I hope this generates a slew of comments, because to me, 6+5, in this case, equals zero.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Starting Eleven: Euro 2008 Preview: Group C--Group of Death

Is there anything more farcical than the Group of Death concept in major football tournaments. Most of the time, you get two marginally good teams paired in the same group, and the over-anxious press spits on the back of the label, activates the glue, and affixes it smack-dab on the group's collective forehead.

Well, with Euro 2008 a little more than a week away, we have a legitimate GROUP OF DEATH.

The fun began Sunday Dec. 1 when the Euro draw was announced, pairing poor Romania alongside defending world champs Italy, the Netherlands and France. While it may seem that all the fun will be concentrated in this one group, the bigger picture reveals that we will lose a giant, perhaps two, before we get to the knockout stage. I'm not sure that's good for football; I mean, let me slip on my cynic's hat for a second, if you're gonna rig the draw, at least rig it the right way!

No real surprises as the final rosters for each nation were announced. France excluded David Trezeguet, the Netherlands said no thanks to Khalid Boulahrouz. And Italy remains the team to beat in the group. Reuters reports that France coach Raymond Domenech doesn't play nicely with veteran Trezeguet; he has played only five times for Domenech since the last World Cup where France was the beaten finalist.

The Dutch, meanwhile, have a tough road to hoe and could be playing for third, or fighting for their lives to escape the cellar here. The front line is star-studded behind Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Ajax), Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben (Real Madrid), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), but consistency isn't a strong suit for the Orange-clad Netherlands.

The sleeper here is Romania with Adrian Mutu (Fiorentina), Marius Niculae (Inverness CT) up front, Cristian Chivu* (Inter Milan) in the back and Bogdan Lobont (Dinamo Bucharest) in goal. Romania won its group, beating Holland ironically enough, by three points and taking three of four points from the Dutch. Romania scored a group-high 26 goals in 12 matches and could be a surprise quarterfinalist.

And then there's Italy. Deep, talented, and world champs until someone beat them. Italy topped France in qualifying -- again, if you're going to rig the draw, jeezus, don't pair up teams that have already played each other a bunch of times. Although France is the only team to have beaten Italy in qualifying.


Italy 7
France 4
Romania 2
Holland 1

England Beats U.S.; Flashback 15 Years

Yesterday's 2-0 England win over the U.S.A. brought back memories of the U.S.' 1993 win over England at Foxboro Stadium as part of the hackneyed U.S. Cup.

I was a young reporter covering the match for a Massachusetts newspaper, and it was a thrill. Like most writers covering football of the world's variety, I was in the minority as a fan of the game among my peers. It was a tough sell to get the game covered and in the paper, but nearly 40,000 tickets were sold for the game, which was approximately one year before the 1994 World Cup--yes I did cover the six games at Foxboro in '94--another thrill for another day. It was smart for the paper to get on the football bandwagon.

But I digress. I remember the uproar caused by the U.S. win. Not only were there lame references to the American Revolution in local and national headlines, but the win did lend a bit of legitimacy to U.S. soccer--on these shores at least.

I remember the outraged English press in attendance, furiously pounding at their old-school laptops, dialing up editors on deadline and wondering just how much venom they could lash at their boys. It was harsh; after all, it was a made-up tournament; the game was essentially a friendly. The U.S. didn't necessarily dominate. It did get a bang-bang goal from Thomas Dooley to lead 1-0 at the half, and Alexi Lalas came off the bench at 72 minutes to clinch it with a header. But the game was more about how England failed to capitalize, and more importantly, failed to take the game seriously.

The press did take the result seriously, and the headlines the next day were scathing. Coach Graham Taylor was out within a week; and ultimately, England did not qualify for the '94 World Cup. How much this match had to do with it is for history to say.

I just remember how cool it was to see Gary Palister, Paul Ince, Les Ferdinand and John Barnes play a match in my back yard. I remember doing a sidebar on two mates from Manchester, one a United fan, the other a City fan, uniting for one night at least. Unfortunately, I couldn't find them post-match; perhaps my one regret for the night.

For more on yesterday's match, check out:

My Soccer Blog
The Kin of Fish
Soccer By Ives
Revolution Recap
American Soccer Spot
Stateside Footy

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Who Follows Jose Mourinho to Inter Milan?

If Jose Mourinho is installed as Inter Milan manager later this week as expected, which players will follow football's pied piper to Milan?

It's already been reported that Frank Lampard is the apple of Mourinho's eye. The Mirror says Mourinho will sign for three years and earn 7 million pounds per season. It's been no secret the affection many of his former Chelsea and Porto players have for the Special One. And precedent has been set that he's not shy about poaching players to establish a foundation at a new locale.

So with that in mind, here's an educated guess at who's coming to Inter if Mourinho is the new boss--and who's leaving?

Frank Lampard
Didier Drogba
Ricardo Carvalho
Ricardo Quaresma
Alexander Hleb


Notice the dearth of Italian talent on either list, in particular the "In" list. An issue? I'd love to hear from Inter fans on whether that matters?

Either way, Mourinho is there through

Roberto Mancini Sacked at Inter Milan; Special One in Line?

It's all but official that Roberto Mancini has been sacked at Inter Milan and gadfly Jose Mourinho is in the wings waiting to take over. The Telegraph reports that Mancini--back-to-back-to-back Scudetto winner--was let go last night and that Mourinho "can't wait to start." The International Herald Tribune has confirmation of Mancini's firing from the coach's agent Giorgio De Giorgis.

"The president had this idea to change, I don't know what the reason was, but it's over now and there's no going back. Did Mancini expect it? No, certainly not."

IHT also tosses Mancini's name into the Chelsea manager sweepstakes. No huge surprise there. Three straight championships don't buy the job security they used to. Mancini takes a 30 million pound payoff with him. blames a player revolt for the dismissal, citing discord with Adriano, Patrick Vieira, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernan Crespo and Luis Figo.

Mancini is 43, has coached twice at Lazio (he played for the Rome club as well) and at Fiorentina. He made 36 national team appearances for Italy, and played the majority of his career at Sampdoria where he scored 173 goals.

The Offside looks at Inter's three titles under Mancini, and seems to suggest that they had a lot to do with the bribery scandal that gripped Italy earlier this decade.

Soccer Statistics points out Mancini's shortcomings in the Champions League.

Football Transfer bemoans Mancini's departure, and wants the Special One elsewhere in Italy.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

Starting Eleven's weekly tour around the football blogosphere concentrates primarily on sacked Chelsea manager Avram Grant. Grant got the boot over the weekend, less than a week after the Blues dropped the Champions League final in owner Roman Abramovich's backyard of Moscow to Manchester United.

Grant was an odd choice from Day 1 to replace Jose Mourinho. Chelsea went from a dynamic, winning manager--one who had the Champions League pedigree Abramovich wanted so desperately--to Grant, by all accounts a nice man, but one who had difficulty making proactive game-day decisions and primarily suffered, well, because he wasn't Jose Mourinho.

Grant, however, did take Chelsea further than Mourinho did. He got within a penalty kick of winning the European championship, and fell a game short of winning the Premier League. Hmm, I guess I'm making Chelsea's point in those two statements; Grant didn't have enough to put Chelsea over the top. Grant was doomed to fail, as is any manager whose predecessor was successful and beloved. Chelsea's next move is critical; there won't be an Avram Grant to blame this time around if Frank Rijkaard or Roberto Mancini or Marcello Lippi, or whomever is 10 points out by Christmas, and out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. It will fall on Peter Kenyon and Bruce Buck, and it will fall hard. The pedigree has been established; it's yours to uphold.

Soccernews has an excellent analysis of the Grant situation, pointing out the absurdity of Buck and Kenyon's remarks about Chelsea's season:
"For Buck and Kenyon and Abramovich, best friends with Grant, to say the season was disappointing is an insult to nearly every football fan in the world. How most clubs would crave such a disappointing season! Ridiculous!"
Footyblog, meanwhile, buys into the argument and says Grant was sacked after a "poorly performing season." I'll let that speak for itself.

True Blue Football Crazy looks at the possible replacements for Grant. Gotta love the smiling picture of Mourinho at the top.

Netherlands World Cup Blog
looks at the two Dutch candidates for the Chelsea seat in Rijkaard and Guus Hiddink. Hiddink apparently has had a meeting with Abramovich and is prepared to leave a new contract with Russia on the table. issues a mea culpa toward Mr. Grant. After some reflecting, apologies are in order for some initial harsh analysis. Grant took a glamorous job, one that none of use would refuse, suffered the barbs of the fans, yet slowly won a number of them back as Chelsea crept back into the title race and earned its way into the Champions League final. Pity Chelsea didn't win the thing; would have been interesting whether we'd be having this discussion today.

CaughtOffside looks at the issue from Grant's point of view, and reports that the ex-Chelsea manager feels "completely betrayed" by his friend Abramovich.

OK, now away from Grant...

The Daily Mirror and a bunch of other places are reporting that Mourinho becomes the manager at Inter Milan this week--today perhaps. Reports also have it that Mourinho wants Frank Lampard to join him. Could Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho be far behind? Mourinho, upon leaving F.C. Porto to join Chelsea, brought with him a gaggle of Portuguese talent, including Carvalho, Paolo Ferreira and Maniche. History does tend to repeat itself...

Portugoal says it's a done deal with Inter; they're jumping the gun however. BTW, Deco is apparently on Mourinho's shopping list--yes another former F.C. Porto star.

CaughtOffside says Mourinho's line of thinking aligns with Abramovich and Co.: Almost winning the Carling Cup, Premiership and Champions League isn't good enough. Thinking it's good enough equates you with a loser.

SoccerMamak, among other places, reports that Mourinho sent Chelsea star Michael Essien a text message over the weekend confirming that he will sign at Inter--and that he thinks Essien is a special one too! Tampering anyone? Wondering if Jose has an iPhone?

OK, now away from Mourinho...

MLS Rumors takes a couple of different looks at what's going at Columbus Crew stadium; apparently everything from raucous, streamer-throwing fans, to racism and hooliganism. The Boston Globe looks at the streamer issue as well.

Talking to the Doll reports Benfica has a new coach, former Valencia boss Quique Flores.

101 Great Goals has more on the Chelsea situation--and, well, just more on everything. It's a must-stop.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Business Case for Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid

Each hour that passes, it appears, brings Cristiano Ronaldo closer to Real Madrid next season. Ronaldo continues to be non-committal to Manchester United, despite the fact that his fingerprints still haven't been wiped from the Champions League cup--and despite the fact that he has four years remaining on his contract with the Reds.

The Times of London reports that Ronaldo is looking for 150,000 pounds a week, a 30,000-pound raise over his current United deal. Real Madrid reportedly is willing to pony up a 50 million pound transfer fee. Marca of Madrid reports that Ronaldo has agreed in principle to a transfer to Real.

With numbers such as those floating around--Ronaldo's talent notwithstanding--does United see a realistic return on that investment if it matches? It wouldn't be a surprise should United silently capitulate to the move. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry Cristiano?"

United's American owners, the Glazers, have had tremendous times at United (two EPL titles, one Champions League), unlike their Liverpool counterparts. Is it enough for them? Or are they willing to keep this team together, a team that could approach dynasty status in England and win maybe two or three more Premiership titles and contend for at the very least, an annual place in the Champions League semifinals.

To Ronaldo's credit, he isn't setting phony expectations for United fans:
“I never promise nothing. I don’t promise nothing to my mum. I don’t promise nothing to the supporters. I want to stay, I want to stay, but the future no one knows.”
Ronaldo scored 42 goals this season, 31 in the Premiership. He also bagged United's first goal in Wednesday's Champions League final against Chelsea. He was spared ignominy by a soggy pitch and John Terry after stutter-stepping through his penalty kick miss. The kid lives a charmed life. And the charms may extend on the international level when Euro 2008 kicks off. Portugal are among a short list of favorites, and whatever success the team has, hinges on Ronaldo's creativity and scoring.

He makes anyone an instant contender, not that Real needs the help after two straight La Liga wins. Ronaldo will sell a lot of shirts and be a huge attraction on those pre-season tours of Asia. The clincher, however, may lie in the simple fact that Real can afford to pay the exorbitant transfer fee and meet his contract demands. It may make too much business sense for United not to say no.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Champions League Final: John Terry, Tragic Figure

Inconsolable John Terry may be the lasting image of the 2008 Champions League final won by Manchester United. Tears of pain and disappointment stained the Chelsea captain's face as the Blues walked off the pitch losers in penalty kicks to United. Never mind the injustice of settling the European championship in penalties, the injustice of Terry absorbing the weight of Chelsea's loss is the true crime here.

One only has to wonder whether Terry would have been put in that spot had irresponsible Didier Drogba not put his hands to the face of United defender Nemanja Vidic earning himself a red card with four minutes remaining in the second extra period. If this truly was Drogba's final game in Chelsea, it was a pitiful way to go; not only did his selfishness sour the final, but cost his team its best scorer and probably best penalty taker. Terry, the captain, the leader, stood in and had the championship at his feet only to ring the ball off the post to Edwin Van der Sar's right. What if Drogba had been available.

The drama of the penalty kicks was enormous, so many stories in such a short amount of time. What of Cristiano Ronaldo's inexcusable display on his try, United's third. Prancing and preening, Ronaldo stuttered his way to the ball, came to a complete stop and struck the ball firmly into the dive of Petr Cech. His was the first miss.

Then came a succession of near misses. Van der Sar could have atoned, getting a hand on Ashley Cole's try, but the ball found the netting. As did Nani's, but not after Cech got a fingertip to it.

Then came the unfortunate Terry, who had the Champions League title in his deserving grasp. Van der Sar guessed the wrong way, Terry hit it flush, the beleaguered turf betrayed him. His left foot, his plant foot slid as he landed at the ball, which soared too far right, too true to the post. Terry wept.

Anderson and Saloman Kalou traded relatively clean conversions, putting Ryan Giggs on the spot. Giggs' appearance put him past Sir Bobby Charlton on United's list of all-time appearances, and that guile served him well as he struck it true and into the corner. Nicolas Anelka had to score for Chelsea to continue on, but he could not as the ball and Van der Sar met to the right of middle.

And still John Terry wept.

Ronaldo too. How quickly the goat horns traded heads. Ronaldo knew he had been given a reprieve by the horrid Moscow pitch and Terry's ill-fated penalty. Ronaldo knew his charmed life had reared its head again. His dream season continues in a few weeks at the Euro, while Terry's nightmare begins again. He has no moment of redemption in Switzerland and Austria. Instead, he must live with this until August when the EPL reconvenes.

Manchester United may have won justly. Terry's pain is unjust.

More on Terry from The Scotsman, Times of London, The Independent and Setanta.

Champions League Final: Live Blogging

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • Man, is the United back four shaky or what? They haven't had a solid clearance yet
  • Lampard's corners are always pinpoint and potentially scores.
  • Unfortunate touch from Carrick for a corner at 67 minutes.
  • Ferdinand is hurt, cramping certainly. Can we blame the pitch for this one?
  • O'Shea or Silvestre in the ready?
  • Tevez with an impressing wrestling takedown on Makelele.
  • Rooney finally involved in a play that ends in a United corner. Where's he been?
  • Pretty dreadful second half so far.
  • Hmmm, touch and go on Malouda in the box. Good no-call
  • United's strikers are so wide. First it was Ronaldo, now Tevez
  • Drogba rings the post, amazing effort to free himself and the shot beat Van der Sar. 78 minutes
  • Tevez needs to come off. He's just out of sync, taking the body first on all occasions.
  • Ferdinand fell and Malouda got some space, Drogba's shot is high. Was it the pitch, his injury? More Rio woes.
  • Good luck and shot from Tevez, 81 minutes
  • Giggs getting warm. 759 appearances if he does come on, one more than Sir Bobby Charlton
  • Cole and Drogba nearly put Chelsea atop.
  • Giggs is indeed coming in. Scholes out.
  • Looks like extra time. Bummer.

Champions League Final: Live Blogging

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • Second half kicks off
  • Ballack really doesn't like Ronaldo. Shoved him, Ronaldo "dove", Ballack got called
  • Joey Cole getting more involved -- should have won a corner. Bad call.
  • Ronaldo and Evra just combined on a great give and go, Evra's cross is too far for Hargreaves, but another golden opportunity. Tevez can't finish. Passes are a shade off. Could this bode well for Chelsea?
  • Essien makes a wonderful run, but his shot is too high.
  • We're back to the ugly style of play that dominated the first 15. The game needs a goal to open things up again. The final 20 of the first half were quality.
  • It's midnight in Moscow.
  • Vidic with a saving, yet shaky header to safety in front of Drogba. Corner Chelsea and Drogba heads it over the bar.
  • Ballack hits a quality drive wide; too much room, too much time to think
  • Wonder if Scholes can breathe?
  • Makelele takes down Hargreaves, hits him in the nose. With a yellow, that's chancy for the Chelsea M
  • Man. U., 1 goal, 2 broken noses. This is Grant's strategy?
  • Chelsea is in Hargreaves' head.
  • Chelsea is being very physical, especially in the Man. U. end
  • Ballack is either a douche, or immensely intense
  • Man of the match? Hmmm, I may elevate Cech to No. 1 right now the way this is going. Hargreaves 2, Vidic and Ronaldo tied for 3?
  • 65 minutes, 1-1

Champions League Final: Live Blogging -- Chelsea Ties It, 1-1

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • Tevez again had the second United goal on his foot and missed it. This time a great Rooney roller that made it little Carlos. Incredulous miss.
  • Man of the Match? Hargreaves and Ronaldo definitely 1-2, Cech 3
  • GOAL CHELSEA, Frank Lampard. Incredible gaffe by Ferdinand turning his back on the play twice. The ball deflects to Lampard who finds an open net to tie the game at the half.

Champions League Final: Live Blogging

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • Paul Scholes looks awful. Stuffed with cotton, he looks like an old pug who doesn't know better to stay in his corner and toss in the towel.
  • The goal is Ronaldo's first against Chelsea, 42nd of the year.
  • This may get ugly. Essien is either tired or shell-shocked as Ronaldo is starting to have his way in terms of freedom down the left side. Manchester United is imposing its will on the game and Chelsea is doing little to adjust. It's here where United has a big advantage; Sir Alex will outcoach Avram Grant. Now Drogba is cramping, adding to Grant's conundrum. How does he respond?
  • How solid is Rio Ferdinand and Vidic!
  • Not much imagination from Chelsea; dumping long balls from the back somewhat in Drogba's direction. Where's the imagination from the midfield.
  • Easy on my praise for United's defense. Ferdinand just cocked up an easy Drogba cross to the short box that Ballack couldn't put away with a header. Nice punch out from Van der sar.
  • Petr Cech! First on Tevez from Ronaldo then the rebound off Carrick. Wow.
  • Tremendous sequence for both keepers, especially Cech. Every venture downfield for United is a threat on goal. Ronaldo has solved Essien, no question. Calling Mr. Grant. This is why you get paid!
  • Can Chelsea survive to halftime down only one goal?
  • 40 minutes, Manchester United 1, Chelsea 0

Champions League Final: Live Blogging -- Manchester United 1, Chelsea 0

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • How long does Ferguson keep Ronaldo out so wide. He's playing right on the touch line. Drawing him to the middle of the pitch could open a lane for Evra. Or switching fields puts Tevez on that seemingly vulnerable side of the Chelsea defense.
  • GOAL -- MANCHESTER UNITED Ronaldo bashes in a header on a Wes Brown cross. Brown got a lot of room at the top of the box for the cross and Essien forgot where Ronaldo was. Ronaldo skied way high for the header, 26 minutes.
  • Manchester United 1, Chelsea 0

Champions League Final: Live Blogging

Random thoughts while watching today's Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, the first between two English teams.

  • Too bad this isn't being played at Wembley.
  • Ashley Cole does indeed start; Makelele on the take trying to put Cole out of action in training?
  • Lots of chippy fouls early, hopefully this isn't a trend for the whole afternoon.
  • United defense doing a poor job clearing the ball from trouble in the first 5 minutes.
  • My God, Clarence Seedorf is the third man in the booth with Derek Rae and Tommy Onion Bags on the ESPN telecast. Why? 5 minutes in, and he's forgetting names and repeating himself that it's significant Ronaldo is playing on the left side. We get it already.
  • Two quality crosses from Owen Hargreaves already.
  • Surprised really that so much of Chelsea's game is going through Malouda.
  • Park Ji-Sung? Calling Park Ji-Sung!
  • Early analysis: Cole changes his boots--is the pitch as bad as they said? And, Ronaldo relatively quiet--Essien early man of the match candidate?
  • Hmm, check that, Ronaldo just leaves Essien behind and gets off a great cross that Hargreaves missed.
  • If it's not Ronaldo, it's Evra down the left side. What does United see there? Whatever it is, it's working
  • First corner for Man U: Nada
  • First blood: Paul Scholes split open in a collision with Makelele. Looks like the bridge of the nose. Ouch. Yellow for Makelele. And Scholes???? Why either? It was during the run of play, nothing malicious. Wow.
  • Vidic clears to corner on Lampard center. Wes Brown gave it away to Frank. Corner. Thing is, Van der Sar had it. Nothing from the corner.
  • 23 minutes, 0-0

Champions League Preview: Chelsea Starting Eleven

Chelsea's Starting Eleven for today's Champions League final against Manchester United (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

GK Petr Cech
D Ashley Cole
D John Terry
D Ricardo Carvalho
M Joe Cole
M Frank Lampard
M Michael Essien
M Florent Malouda
M Claude Makelele
M Michael Ballack
F Didier Drogba


Juliano Belletti
Carlo Cudicini
Andriy Shevchenko
Salomon Kalou
John Obi Mikel
Nicolas Anekla

Champions League Preview: Manchester United Starting Eleven

Manchester United's Starting Eleven for today's Champions League final against Chelsea (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

GK Edwin Van der Sar
D Rio Ferdinand
D Wes Brown
D Patrice Evra
D Nemanja Vidic
M Paul Scholes
M Owen Hargreaves
M Cristiano Ronaldo
M Michael Carrick
F Wayne Rooney
F Carlos Tevez


John O'Shea
Ryan Giggs
Mikael Silvestre
Darren Fletcher
Tomasz Kuszczak

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Champions League Final Preview: Storylines Abound for Manchseter United, Chelsea

Twenty four hours from kickoff in Moscow, and the focus has been on just about everything but the game:
How about the game?!?

against the United troika of The glamorous matchup is Chelsea's back line of Terry, Carvalho, Essien, Ferreira and CechRonaldo, Rooney and Tevez. Can Ronaldo be stopped? Can Chelsea afford to focus solely on No. 7, only to allow Rooney and Tevez to roam wild. And does the Blues have the luxury of sending one man to monitor Ronaldo's movements? All legitimate questions, but this one may not be decided there, but at the other end of the field.

Rio, Vidic, Brown and Evra I think are a stronger back four than what Chelsea offers; look at what they did to a pressing Barcelona in the semifinals! Say what you will about Barca's failings this year, Barca came to play in the semis and Rio, Vidic et al stood tall. I think the scenario to watch is how Ballack and Lampard press the United midfield and serve Drogba and even Joe Cole.

And how about depth? As well as Chelsea's playing, Grant's boys haven't dug too deeply into the bench, while United as a dangerous set of subs in Park Ji-Sung, Giggs, Nani (if he doesn't start) and even Anderson. Anelka is one to watch off the Chelsea bench.

The wild card may be Grant. With a couple of weeks to think about this one, will he out-coach himself? Will he mess with the team's continuity and rhythm and say, put Anelka out wide or go on a hunch and insert Kalou or Malouda?

Another wild card: the pitch and the crowd. Reports are mixed on the conditions, but word is that it's a new pitch and sod requires time to take. You hate to see a game of this magnitude decided by a shady bounce. Reports are mixed too on the crowds. The Russian government capitulated on the visa situation, opening the doors for anyone with a legitimate ticket. Hopefully this keeps the sideline distractions to a minimum. It's an odd to choice to put the final in Moscow; here's hoping it's a non-issue.

So who wins?

How about United, 2-1, with a late goal from Sung off the bench; just a gut feeling.

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Euro 2008 Official Rosters Released

Starting Eleven will periodically update this post as the final rosters for Euro 2008 are released. Hopefully this becomes a must-have resource for you:



Goalkeepers: Ricardo Pereira, Betis; Quim Silva, Benfica; Rui Patricio, Sporting; Defenders: Miguel Monteiro, Valencia; Jose Bosingwa, Chelsea; Paulo Ferreira, Chelsea; Ricardo Carvalho, Chelsea; Fernando Meira, Stuttgart; Bruno Alves, Porto; Pepe, Real Madrid; Jorge Ribeiro, Boavista.Midfielders: Raul Meireles, Porto; Joao Moutinho, Sporting; Deco, Barcelona; Armando Petit, Benfica; Miguel Veloso, Sporting Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United; Simao Sabrosa, Atletico Madrid; Ricardo Quaresma, Porto; Nuno Gomes, Benfica; Hugo Almeida, Werder Bremen; Nani, Manchester United; Helder Postiga, Panathinaikos.

Here is my Group A preview and prediction.



Goalkeepers Jens Lehmann (Arsenal), Robert Enke (Hanover 96), Rene Adler (Bayer Leverkusen) Defenders Christoph Metzelder (Real Madrid), Per Mertesacker (Werder Bremen), Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich), Arne Friedrich (Hertha BSC Berlin), Marcell Jansen (Bayern Munich), Clemens Fritz (Werder Bremen), Heiko Westermann (Schalke 04) Midfielders Michael Ballack (Chelsea), Thomas Hitzlsperger (VfB Stuttgart), Simon Rolfes (Bayer Leverkusen), Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich), Piotr Trochowski (Hamburger SV), Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), David Odonkor (Real Betis), Marko Marin (Borussia Mönchengladbach) Forwards Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich), Lukas Podolski (Bayern Munich), Mario Gomez (VfB Stuttgart), Kevin Kuranyi (Schalke 04), Oliver Neuville (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Patrick Helmes (Cologne)


Goalkeepers: Stipe Pletikosa (Spartak Moscow), Mario Galinovic (Panathinaikos), Vedran Runje (Lens) Defenders Dario Šimic* (AC Milan), Josip Šimunic (Hertha Berlin), Robert Kovac* (Borussia Dortmund), Vedran Corluka (Manchester City), Hrvoje Vejic (Tom Tomsk), Dario Kneževic (Livorno) Midfielders Ivan Rakitic (Schalke 04), Nikola Pokrivac and Jerko Leko (AS Monaco), Niko Kovac** (Salzburg), Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Luka Modric and Ognjen Vukojevic (Dinamo Zagreb), Niko Kranjcar (Portsmouth), Danijel Pranjic (Heerenveen) Forwards Nikola Kalinic (Hajduk), Ivan Klasnic (Werder Bremen), Ivica Olic (Hamburg), Igor Budan (Parma), Mladen Petric (Borussia Dortmund)



Goalkeepers: Bogdan Lobont (Dinamo Bucharest), Danut Coman (Rapid Bucharest), Marius Popa (Politehnica Timisoara). Defenders: Cristian Sapunaru (Rapid Bucharest), Dorin Goian (Steaua Bucharest), Sorin Ghionea (Steaua Bucharest), Cosmin Moti (Dinamo Bucharest), Cosmin Contra (Getafe), Gabriel Tamas (Auxerre), Stefan Radu (Lazio), Razvan Rat (Shakhtar Donetsk). Midfielders: Florentin Petre (TSKA Sofia), Paul Codrea (Siena), Razvan Cocis (Lokomotiv Moscow), Cristian Chivu (Inter Milan), Mirel Radoi (Steaua Bucharest), Ovidiu Petre (Steaua Bucharest), Nicolae Dica (Steaua Bucharest), Banel Nicolita (Steaua Bucharest), Ciprian Deac (CFR Cluj), Adrian Cristea (Dinamo Bucharest). Forwards: Adrian Mutu (Fiorentina), Ciprian Marica (VfB Stuttgart), Daniel Niculae (Auxerre), Marius Niculae (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Florin Bratu (Dinamo Bucharest).



Goalkeepers: Club: Iker Casillas Real Madrid José Manuel Reina Liverpool Andrés Palop Sevilla . Defenders: Sergio Ramos Real Madrid Carles Puyol Barcelona Juanito Betis Álvaro Arbeloa Liverpool Fernando Navarro Mallorca Raúl Albiol Valencia Carlos Marchena Valencia Joan Capdevila Villarreal . Midfielders: Cesc Fàbregas Arsenal Andrés Iniesta Barcelona Xavi Hernandez Barcelona David Silva Valencia Santiago Cazorla Villareal Rubén de La Red Getafe Xabi Alonso Liverpool Marcos Senna Villareal . Forwards: David Villa Valencia Sergio Garcia Zaragoza Fernando Torres Liverpool Daniel Güiza Mallorca


Goalkeepers Andreas Isaksson (Manchester City), Rami Shaaban (Hammarby), Johan Wiland (Elfsborg) Defenders Mikael Nilsson (Panathinaikos), Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa), Petter Hansson (Stade Rennais), Fredrik Stoor (Rosenborg), Daniel Majstorovic (Basel), Andreas Granqvist (Wigan), Mikael Dorsin (CFR Cluj) Midfielders Tobias Linderoth** (Galatasaray), Niclas Alexandersson (IFK Göteborg), Anders Svensson (Elfsborg), Fredrik Ljungberg* (West Ham), Kim Källström (Lyon), Sebastian Larsson (Birmingham City), Daniel Andersson (Malmö FF), Christian Wilhelmsson (Deportivo de La Coruña) Forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Inter Milan), Johan Elmander (Toulouse), Henrik Larsson (Helsingborg), Marcus Allbäck (FC Copenhagen), Markus Rosenberg (Werder Bremen)

Here is my analysis of the Euro 2008 Group of Death posted on the day of the draw.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

Cup finals dominate the weekend, the final for domestic play for the most part in Europe. Here's our weekly trek around the football blogosphere.
101 Great Goals gathers the best from the U.K. papers on Portsmouth's 1-0 FA Cup win over Cardiff at Wembley. Harry Redknapp is the star of the day. Kanu gets the game-winner. Portsmouth denies a second division team its dream of winning silverware. Sanford Soccer has a bit more from the Cardiff side. Soccernews has more on Redknapp, as does the English Football Blog.

Portugoal is the place for the Portuguese Cup final. No double for F.C. Porto this year in Portugal. Sporting takes the Portuguese Cup, beating Porto 2-0 in extra time yesterday. Porto played with 10 men for the last 50 minutes of the match. Substitute Tiui scored both Sporting goals; Sporting wins the Cup for the 15th time. Sporting finishes the year strong, wrapping up an automatic berth in the group stage of the Champions League and beating the domestic champs for the Cup.

Real Madrid was crowned on Sunday in La Liga. Levante did not strike. It played. It lost, 5-2. The Real Liga points out how anticlimactic this game was, and that it had the feel of a friendly. For the record, Real finishes with 85 points, a record. In case you were wondering, David Beckham says Real deserved the Spanish title.

Meanwhile, the story turns toward Cristiano Ronaldo and whether he bolts Manchester United after this week's Champions League final for Madrid. Coach Bernd Schuster says no, which of course means a deal is imminent. Sir Bobby Charlton is not a happy camper about Madrid's poaching of Ronaldo.

How do you spell dynasty in Italian? I-n-t-e-r? Milan's other club wrapped up its third straight domestic championship on Sunday, beating Parma 2-0. Soccer By Ives has a thorough recap of Inter's season, as does Ara Sports. Gooners Guide points out that AC Milan makes it to the UEFA Cup--next year's Bayern Munich? FC Football Blog has a bunch of Inter highlights from yesterday. Nowaday's What has a sobering look at the way Inter fans celebrated.

Barcelona president Juan Laporta has kicked open the door and has his boot aimed at Ronaldinho's backside. He told a Catalan TV station that the star needs a new "challenge." Soccernews seems to think Ronaldinho is bound for AC Milan.

Quick Hits:
Top of the 18 says Fabregas, Clichy ready to re-up at Arsenal.
MLS Rumors swishes this one around: BarcaNY? BarcaMiami?
Oh You Beauty relives Liverpool's season
Talking to the Doll has a bit on Benfica's trip to Africa. Good reading for Adu fans.
American Soccer Spot looks at the sack race in MLS.
One note about the photo used here; it's from urban75blog who was at Wembley yesterday, and apparently had outstanding seats.

19 days to Euro 2008.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Euro 2008 Group B Preview: Poland, Croatia in Battle for Second

Let's call Group B the Axis powers group. Germany, Austria, Croatia and Poland--OK, there's some editorial license going on there, but you get the point.

The real point, however, is that this is Germany's group to lose. The real race is for second here between Croatia and Poland. Austria, one of the co-hosts, isn't here on merit. Austria paid its way in via new stadiums and a healthy bid to UEFA. Congrats, now get out of the way.

Germany released its roster for the tournament, and the biggest splash came when manager Joachim Loew decided to leave keeper Timo Hildebrand of Valencia off the team and called youngling keeper Rene Adler of Leverkeusen to the side.

Germany figures to roll into the quarterfinals behind strikers Kevin Kuranyi, Oliver Neuville and Miroslav Klose. Michael Ballack solidifies the midfield in what likely will be his final Euro. Bastien Schweinsteiger had a big World Cup and a solid year at Bayern Munich, easily winning the Bundesliga.

Who joins the Germans? Poland had a great run in qualifying, winning a group that included Portugal, Belgium and Finland. Ignore a 3-0 beating handed out by the U.S. on March 26, Poland is a contender for the final eight. Don't forget that the Poles and the Ukraine are bidding to co-host the 2012 Euro, a good showing here only helps that effort.

Croatia is probably regarded as a favorite for second. Coach Slaven Bilic has a new deal through 2010 dropped standby, and Bosko Balaban in favor of Nikola Kalinic at striker. Croatia, you'll remember, sent England out of the tournament in qualifying and is to be reckoned with.

Austria, meanwhile, is happy to be there. The co-hosts open against Croatia June 8. Its best hope is Ivica Vastic, a 38-year-old attacking midfielder. Uemit Korkmaz and Stefan Maierhofer are first-timers, but honestly, there isn't much to expect here.


Germany 5
Poland 5
Croatia 5
Austria 0

*Germany, Poland get through on goal differential.

Here is the Starting Eleven Group A preview.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Porto Faces Champions League Ban, Dragged Down by President Pinto da Costa

If there's a bigger scumbag in European football than FC Porto president Jorge Pinto da Costa, then we haven't met him yet. Da Costa, along with officials from Boavista and Uniao Leiria, was nailed on match-fixing and corruption charges and banned from football for two years. Six points were also deducted from Porto's final 2007-08 point total--inconsequential because Porto won the Portuguese title by 20 points.

Now there's talk Porto could be barred from the Champions League next season. The bribery charges stem back to the 2003-04 season when Porto won the domestic title and Champions League under Jose Mourinho. The trickle down would be tremendous should Porto be barred. Wither Quaresma, Lopez and Lucho Gonzalez if there's no European crown to contend for? Porto already has lost defender Boswinga to Chelsea. Porto plays Sporting on Sunday in the Portuguese Cup final.

Portuguese soccer is the backwater of European football. This is not the first such scandal to envelop Pinto da Costa. He was the subject of a tell-all book by his girlfriend in 2006, who detailed more bribery, match-fixing and beatdowns. Benfica, another once-glorious club, is in constant financial difficulty and Sporting, third among the big three, is only too willing to sell off its stable of young talent to make ends meet.

Boavista, a second-tier team, and the only club to win the first division title in the last 50 years aside from the big three, faces a dire future. It was relegated to the second division, watched as its entire board of directors resigned and its players threatened to strike if back wages were not paid.

Now this. Porto likely won't be barred from the Champions League, but as long as Pinto da Costa is affiliated with the club, it's a black eye on the team and the league as much as Porto is its greatest symbol of recent success.

UEFA Cup final: Hypocritical Advocaat Turns Cheers to Jeers

I don't have an emotional investment in today's UEFA Cup final between Zenit St. Petersburg and Rangers (2 p.m. ET Fox Soccer Channel), but if you're on the fence like me, you may want to check out Martin Samuel's column today in the Times of London on Zenit manager Dick Advocaat.

By the time you're done, you'll be saying "Go Rangers."

Seems the Russian club has a long-standing policy (83 years) of not hiring black players. Advocaat, former Holland coach, defending his refusal to buck that policy. He told a Russian journalist:
“I don’t want to sign a player who won’t be accepted by the fans. The fans are the most important thing that Zenit have and that is why I have to ask them outright how they will react if we sign a dark-skinned player. The only players who can make Zenit stronger are dark skinned. Look at the Brazilians who play for CSKA Moscow. For us, it would be impossible. I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players. I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour. For me, there is no difference; but they care.”

Great, Dick, thanks for clarifying.

I'll let this hypocrisy speak for itself. I'm sure Advocaat has some money socked away somewhere, and has the coaching pedigree to get another job in Europe. Does he need to work for Zenit that badly? Couldn't he have resigned on principle when he first got wind of this foul breeze? Why perpetuate it? Why perpetuate the climate of racism doing enough damage to this game already?

It's too bad this is allowed to go on. Where's UEFA been with this garbage? Why hasn't the game's governing body stepped in and banned this club until it gets its act together on race? This is shameful.

I no longer admire Zenit's remarkable run in the UEFA Cup, laying waste to among others, Bayern Munich, in its wake. I no longer want to see Cinderella be the belle of the ball. I no longer want to hear anything about this club, or this manager.

Go Rangers!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

If you're nostalgic and can appreciate symmetry, Manchester United's title-clinching win yesterday was absolutely orgasmic. Not only does the face of the new guard of football, Cristiano Ronaldo, all but lock up the championship with a penalty kick 33 minutes in, but graybeard Ryan Giggs salts away his 10th winners' medal with the goal that made the 2-0 final 10 minutes from the close.

The championship is United's 10th in 16 years, and sends the Reds bouncing into next week's Champions League final against Chelsea, which not only drew at home against Bolton, but may have lost John Terry to a dislocated elbow, and Didier Drogba to a banged-up knee.

In the end, United is a fitting champion. Man. U. was the best side, consistently from November on, and if not for a brutally difficult March and April schedule that allowed Chelsea to creep back into contention, this would not have gone to the final weekend.

Here's a jaunt around the football blogosphere, dedicated to the final weekend of the Premiership and Manchester United's championship:

Friday, May 9, 2008

Finally: Manchester United, Chelsea to Decide Premier League Title

There are only two matches that matters this weekend in Europe: Wigan-Manchester United and Chelsea-Bolton. For the first time, the English Premier League championship will be decided on the final weekend of the season. To clarify: United and Chelsea are even on points (84), United has the insurmountable edge in goal difference (17) and will win the title with a victory at Wigan. Any slipup coupled with a Chelsea victory, and the Blues are champions.

Logic tells you that United and Chelsea are heavy favorites against 13th place Wigan and 16th place Bolton respectively. But logic flies out the window when conspiracy theorists enter the fray--and boy are they out there in full force. The mind games leading up to this weekend are staggering, giving credence to the theories that intangibles, and not talent, will decide the championship Sunday.

For instance:
  1. Wigan boss Steve Bruce is a former United player; how closely allied is he with United and will his team lie down for Man U.?
  2. Wigan’s home pitch is a mess, well less than perfect, and will destroy United’s precise game.
  3. Wayne Rooney is officially doubtful for the title decider, leaving a gaping hole in the Man. U. attack.
  4. Bolton players have been partying all week, says Sir Alex. Never mind Wigan laying down, what about the Wanderers, he asks.
  5. Sven Goran Eriksson is suddenly linked with the Chelsea job 48 hours before the game(s) of the year. Is he really in line to replace Avram Grant? What if Grant wins the Premiership--AND the Champions League? How do you replace him?
  6. Ricardo Carvalho is doubtful for Chelsea, leaving a gaping hole in the Chelsea back.
  7. The experts like Manchester United.

Sensible fans will realize that all of this is hype, and come kickoff, not of it matters. There are simple counters to all of these theories:
  1. Steve Bruce is a professional and his team will give an honest effort.
  2. The messy pitch is there for both teams.
  3. Rooney will play.
  4. Football players party all the time, this week is no different for Bolton (nor United, Chelsea or Wigan for that matter).
  5. Sven isn’t going anywhere near the Chelsea job.
  6. Carvalho will play.
  7. Why wouldn’t the experts like United with so many factors in United’s favor.

In the end, talent and desire--and the best team wins out. Unless United succumbs to “squeaky-bum time,” it beats Wigan, Chelsea slaps Bolton around and United wins the title.

It only makes sense.

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Which Players Follow Rijkaard Out Barcelona Door?

Frank Rijkaard's dismissal/departure from Barcelona, announced yesterday, is the most anticlimactic news of the 2007-2008 football season.

Rijkaard spent five years at Camp Nou, won two league titles and the Champions League, yet the last two years, Real Madrid overtook Barca for the LaLiga crown and the team dissolved into an expensive, bickering mass of crybabies. That was enough for Juan Laporta. The Barca president, however, didn't go for a high-profile replacement, instead looked within and hired Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola won't likely inherit the star-studded team Rijkaard assembled; whither Deco, Ronaldino, E'to?

Spanish Football and Sports looks at the lengthy list of players who may be following Rijkaard out the door.
Footy Boots has comment from Laporta and additional insight on Guardiola.
Sportsnob takes a look at Rijkaard's legacy and accomplishments.

And for sentimental Barca fans:

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eriksson to Benfica? Or is it Smoke-and-Mirrors?

The Sven Goran Eriksson smoke-and-mirrors show took an interesting twist yesterday when Portuguese television cameras spotted the Manchester City boss existing a Manchester hotel with Benfica president LuÍs Filipe Viera, soon-to-be club official Rui Costa and Pablo Gonçalves, the club's attorney, supposedly the early stages of a deal that would return Eriksson to the Benfica bench.

Benfica is about to wrap up a miserable season this weekend that has them in fourth place after spending considerable time in second which would have wrapped up a Champions League spot. The team was also eliminated in the Portuguese Cup semifinals by archrivals Sporting after blowing a 3-1 second-half lead and losing 5-3.

Former player Chalana took over for Jose Antonio Camacho, who bolted earlier this season from the manager's chair. Chalana has done little to keep the job and Portugal's top club is apparently pursuing the former England manager.

Eriksson is all but done at Manchester City. It's despot owner Thaksin Shinawatra has already offered the job to Portugal manager Luis Filipe Scolari, but wants Scolari to commit prior to Euro. Scolari says he won't make up his mind until after the tournament. Portugal, a 2006 World Cup semifinalist, is among the Euro favorites.

The real question here is: Why Benfica?

OK, Eriksson coached there in the 1980s and 90s and won championships and took the team to the UEFA Cup finals. But at 4 million euros a year, he's hardly a bargain, and way out of Benfica's price range. But is something creative going on in the background? Eriksson is essentially playing with house money right now. He was bought out of his England contract (three years) and will have to be bought out of his City deal (two years). Could Benfica work that to its advantage? Could it offer Eriksson a piece of the club in exchange for lesser salary, for example? Interesting, and possible.

Or is the more likely answer that Eriksson is using Benfica as a bargaining chip for a bigger deal? Don't foget, Jose Mourinho casts a big shadow among available coaches. But with Barcelona, AC Milan and possibly the Liverpool job opening up, there are plenty of scenarios for a coach with Eriksson's resume.

At first blush, this was a courtesy meeting with Benfica. With the regular season winding down, Eriksson is being proactive about his next move, whether he'll end up in Lisbon is another question altogether.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Euro 2008 Preview: Group A -- Cristiano Coronation

EURO 2008

Group A

Czech Republic

Cristiano Ronaldo has spent nine months establishing himself as the best player in the world. Euro 2008 could be his coronation.

Can the Portugal star, full of flair, bravado and immense talent, be contained? Unlikely in this group. The 2004 finalists are ripe to win this group and have to be considered a favorite to win the tournament. And Ronaldo is the key. The Manchester United star could be coming into the continental championships fresh off a Champions League title should United overtake Chelsea in Moscow on the 21st. It's a rough calendar for Ronaldo, but it could work in his favor; there will be no downtick in intensity, and if they kid has any sense of history and his place in the game's lore, he could be salivating to win Portugal's first major title once the tournament starts June 7.

This is truly Portugal’s golden generation, more so than the Figo, Joao Pinto era--or was it error? Ronaldo (40 goals, Premier League title, Champions League finalist), Quaresma, Nani, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso are the new princes of Portugal (yes they’re all Sporting Lisbon products). They’re also the perfect combination of youth and skill to complement the veteran guile of Maniche, Deco, Simao, Ricardo Carvalho, Paolo Ferreira, Postiga and Nuno Gomes.

It’s hard not to like this team to win the whole thing. What’s working against Portugal? Well, there’s the potential distraction of Luis Filipe Scolari possibly moving to Manchester City, and whether Jose Mourinho is ready to step in (unlikely). There’s also the depth of this competition, arguably much more difficult than the World Cup.

The group can be had, but can Portugal avenge its 2004 disappointment?

The Czechs are the natural choice for second in this group, but injuries are clouding their chances. Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky has been on the shelf for some time, and that certainly puts a dent in the team’s chances. If Rosicky is out, the Czechs could turn to veteran Pavel Nedved to run their midfield. The key match in this group may be the Czech-Turkey encounter.

The Turks are old--Hakan Sukur is still on this roster! That’s a bit unfair of me, but it’s worth noting. Turkey boasts Galatasaray star Mehmet Topal, and has the depth and experience to challenge the Czechs for third.

The Swiss, meanwhile, are here because they’re gracious hosts. Can Switzerland muster a point in this group? Doubtful, unless it pulls off a major surprise; any result is an upset.


  1. Portugal 7 points
  2. Czech Republic 5
  3. Turkey 2
  4. Switzerland 1

Real Madrid Closes on La Liga championship, David Villa

Real Madrid isn't just chasing the LaLiga title today, it's in hot pursuit of Valencia stud David Villa. Real Madrid Talk reports that Ramon Calderon is offering 35 million pounds for the Spain striker.

Villa is coveted on many fronts, including Champions League finalists Manchester United and Chelsea. TotalClubFootball reports that Real began its pursuit by offering cash and a combination of players including Julio Baptista, Esteban Granero and Ruben de la Red for Villa, who has already turned down an offer from Tottenham.

Villa is 26, and has made 30 appearances for Spain, scoring 13 times. He scored three times in the 2006 World Cup and displaced Raul. In 96 LaLiga matches, he's potted 52 goals.

It's tough to get a read on whether Villa is intent on staying in Spain, or taking a similar route as fellow Spain striker Fernando Torres and heading for the Premier League. Torres was immense for Liverpool and clearly the best acquisition of the offseason. Liverpool led the Premier League for the first quarter of the season before dipping to its customary fourth place. Also customary was Liverpool's deep run into the Champions League, losing in last week's epic semifinal to Chelsea.

Torres scored 23 Premier League goals, third best in the league, 32 in all competitions. Liverpool broke the bank to get him, ponying up 26.5 million pounds. Villa apparently will command more, and the expectations on him will be at least similar to those heaped upon Torres.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, hosts Barcelona today (4 p.m. ET live on GOL TV) and can wrap up its second straight domestic championship. The Classico doesn't have the shine it should given Barca's poor form of late; will the Catalans find some pride and play for a result today? It's been a rough go of late. Frank Rijkaard is all but out at Barcelona. Reuters is reporting that Pep Guardiola is in the wings to take over for Rijkaard, who won two championships and a Champions League trophy during his tenure at Barca.

Real has been in cruise control for a while in LaLiga. It leads by 10 points over Villareal, while Barca is 14 points back in third. Read has won five of its last six, tying once. Its last defeat came March 23, ironically enough, to Villa's Valencia team, 3-2. Raul is the team's leading scorer with 17 goals; Ruud VanNistelrooy has 12 and Robinho 10.

Barca, meanwhile, beat up on Valencia last weekend 6-0, but that was its first win in five games, and its first in LaLiga since March 23.

All the pegs are in place for a glorious week for Real Madrid; a second straight championship and David Villa--not bad for a week's work.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pain in the Arsene: First Flamini, Now Hleb

The hits keep on coming for Arsenal; first Mathieu Flamini latches on with AC Milan and now it appears Alexander Hleb is headed for Inter Milan. The Times of London reports he has leaked word to teammates that he's gone, agreeing to a four-year deal, same term as Flamini's in the same city. Nice they can keep each other company. The rub is that Hleb has two years left on his Arsenal deal and manager Arsene Wenger is ready to grieve to FIFA.

Arsenal's firm stance on contract extensions is prohibitive. The club offers only one-year extensions to footballers closing in on the big 3-0. Flamini said thanks, but no thanks to the shackles the London club places on its players and stands to make 50,000 pounds a week at his new club--and he's only 24. Hleb is 27, and sees the writing on the wall.

The cynic says well, "what have they won with these guys anyway, let them go." The optimist counters "what have they won with these guys anyway, here's a chance to get new blood." Problem is, what strain of new blood would want to play at Arsenal under those constraints? And if Arsenal abolishes those constraints now to accommodate new players, why not keep Flamini--and Hleb for that matter--one of its brightest stars. And what of Cesc? He'll be a ripe ol' 24 before you know it. Will Arsenal squeeze Fabregas too?

This has been a most discouraging season for Arsenal. The club was in front, it looked, to stay in the Premiership. And its style, flair and dominant results in the Champions League looked like it was destined for a precious double. All of that quickly vanished as Arsenal's form diminished. The team couldn't close out quality opponents, Wenger started playing with his starting eleven, sacrificed the FA Cup and league cup, and in the end will end up with zero silverware.

With Flamini and Hleb gone, Arsenal has suddenly become the team to watch this summer once the transfers begin. Wenger has huge holes to fill, and a less-than-inviting pay structure to offer topnotch players. Will Arsenal shift its business model to accommodate the on-field product? Or is the debt incurred with the redevelopment of Highbury and the construction of the Emirates Stadium too demanding?

To quote the unforgettable Hyman Roth:
"This is the business we have chosen."
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Monday, May 5, 2008

Manchester United, Chelsea: To the Wire

Chelsea gets goals from Michael Ballack and Malouda to turn back Newcastle 2-0 and take the Premiership to the final weekend. Man. U. needs to win at Wigan, while Chelsea's only hope is to beat Bolton and pray for help from Wigan. Man. U. has an insurmountable goal differential in its favor and needs only to match Chelsea's result to win its second straight title.

Television remote controls will be on overtime Saturday with both matches starting at the same time. Let the hype begin with entries from:

ManU the Offside
Teletext's Man. U. page
Caught Offside

BTW, take my poll. Countdown: 16 days to Moscow--and counting...

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

A juicy collection of stuff from the football blogosphere today, including comings and goings at Arsenal, MLS news and previews of Chelsea's must-win game against Newcastle today.

Top of the 18 reports that Flamini's rumored departure from Arsenal has legs, and those legs have landed in Milan. The Telegraph, meanwhile, expects Flamini to sign a four-year deal today. After four years with the Gunners, it appears Cesc Fabregas will be a bit lonely in the Arsenal midfield next year. Arsenal, meanwhile, has lost only twice with Flamini in the lineup, three times without him. More from Arsespeak Gunners Live and Football Unleashed on Flamini's departure.

MySoccerBlog has two interesting notes. Clint Dempsey is staying put at Fulham, relegation or not; and Eric Wynalda is heading back to competitive football? Hmmm.

More from MLS: It isn't quite a rumor, but MLS Rumors has an interesting entry on the seeds of hooliganism being planted in Toronto. Shame if it's true; Toronto seems to be one of the few communities truly behind its MLS franchise.

No doubt, still-in-mourning Oh You Beauty recaps Liverpool's 1-0 win over Manchester City. There's always next year...

Benfica, meanwhile, is resigned to fourth place in Portugal after a 0-0 draw with Amadora. Sporting, meanwhile, climbs to second with its road win at Pacos and Guimaraes' draw. Read more at Talking to the Doll. BTW, lots of Freddy Adu questions after this one; and who will coach at Benfica next year?

One of the best reads of the day comes from The Soccer Weblog. They're tossing some cold water on the conspiracy theorists' claims that West Ham tossed in the towel against United, heaping a bit of pressure on Chelsea today at Newcastle. Chelsea needs to win to keep pace with United with a week to go in the Premier League's title race. Read more on the Alan Curbishly-Avram Grant drama.

Here's more on today's Chelsea-Newcastle showdown from The Chelsea Blog.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Avram Grant: Chelsea's Ultimate Winner?

Having just returned from Texas, I've been amiss in not tossing in two cents on the marvelous Chelsea-Liverpool second leg Champions League semifinal.

It's not the final I expected or wanted, but I have to say the lasting image for me aside from Frank Lampard's emotional tugging at his black armband is Avram Grant dropping to his knees upon the final whistle.

Grant has taken so many punches from the fans and media that he' s been begging for a kick. Ironically, it may be Grant who gets in the last boot should he manage to get Chelsea to lift the Champions League cup and the premiership championship. The latter will be most difficult given Manchester United's edge in goal differential. But how ironic would a Chelsea double be (treble if you count the Carling Cup)?

Whomever followed Jose Mourinho at Chelsea was doomed to fail, no doubt. Few could live up to that charisma and back-to-back Premiership titles are impressive enough. Perhaps that's why Roman Abramovich ultimately went with the familiar Grant, a low-profile man whose top-line resume achievement was guiding the Israel national team. He's been slammed for his player selection and in-game management, but it's difficult to argue with the results. Grant has gone where not even Mourinho could with Chelsea and he's 90 minutes away from securing Abramovich's ultimate goal.

Is it enough to keep his job? Doesn't truly matter at this point, John Terry's support not withstanding. This just might be Chelsea's last great stand, especially with the impending departure of Didier Drogba. And what of Terry, Wayne Bridge and a host of others? Might it be enough inspiration to unify this team for one last run at a major trophy? Grant might be the lasting figure.

Stay tuned, May 21 is around the corner.