Wednesday, April 30, 2008

HISTORY: All-England Champions League Final Secured

All-England is no longer exclusive to Wimbledon tennis. Feel free to apply that descriptor to the 2008 Champions League final after Manchester United held on to beat Barcelona 1-0 yesterday at Old Trafford. Liverpool or Chelsea will join United May 21 in Moscow following the second leg of their semifinal today at 2:45 ET (ESPN2).

Pretty fitting Paul Scholes' wonder goal was the winner yesterday. Scholes was suspended for United's 1999 thriller victory over Bayern Munich, but he will get a chance to atone in three weeks.

Scholes' moment of brilliance was born of a Barcelona blunder. Gianluca Zambrotta's brilliant pilfering of a furious Ronaldo attack down the left side of the United attack was overshadowed by a horrific clearing attempt that Scholes welcomed about 30 meters from goal. Scholes volleyed the bouncing ball with great precision and movement, giving Barca keeper Victor Valdes no shot at keeping it out of the goal. United had its lead. Scholes had another defining moment.

Long unfit for national team play, Scholes may be playing his way back into Fabio Capello's consciousness. In the meantime, the Reds' redhead will settle for the big-eared cup, no doubt. In '99, he and Roy Keane accumulated too many yellow cards and were banned from the final, a 2-1 United shocker with a pair of goals in the closing seconds of the match.

Today's Chelsea-Liverpool second leg promises equal drama, and questions.

  • Will John Arne Riise atone for his own goal that gave the Blues a precious away goal?
  • Will Avram Grant silence them all and reach Europe's greatest stage?
  • Will grief-struck Frank Lampaard play today?
  • Does Steven Gerrard have another Champions League miracle in his holster?

All will be answered later today, and history will be made in three weeks.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One For United Faithful

Maybe the greatest finish in the history of sports:

Champions League: Manchester United, Barcelona Brace for Semifinal Clash

The English papers are aglow this morning with the possibilities of an all-England Champions League final. Manchester United hosts Barcelona today with the ghosts of last week's penalty miss in Spain still haunting United. Cristiano Ronaldo has promised to atone, but United need look only as far as Liverpool and John Arne Riise to see how quickly it can all slip away.

Sir Alex Ferguson is steadfast that United has not hit a late-season wall, especially in the wake of the team's loss at Chelsea on Saturday. The setback put United and Chelsea level on points in the Premiership, and cast the very real possibility that United could come away sans silverware this season.

Sir Alex pontificates in the Times of London:
“No, I'm not concerned the season is beginning to affect the team. We should be sitting here now as champions of this league. Decisions have gone against us, bad decisions. But when we started out in the league in August, our goal was to win it. We signed up to play 38 league matches and we are going to play 38 league matches. And if it means we have to win the last two games to win the league, then so be it.

“Where we are now is, with two games left - it doesn't matter if we've had 50 penalty kicks turned down or 50 given to us, or terrible performances or great performances. We are sitting here with two league games left: a home game against West Ham on Saturday and a game against Wigan away, as well as a semi-final against Barcelona. Disaster!”
Ferguson clearly wants the big-eared cup, and proved it on Saturday by sitting Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Patrice Evra and Paul Scholes against the Blues. Will his arrogance catch up to him. Clearly, West Ham and Wigan don't scare Ferguson, who was willing to sacrifice at least two points to Chelsea on Saturday; it's doubtful a loss was on his drawing board.

Barcelona, meanwhile, has to rue its slate of missed opportunities at home last week against United. Going into impenetrable Old Trafford and securing such an important result is a tall order. Manager Frank Rijkaard, many believe, is a dead-man-walking. Yet, he is resolute that his team impose its will on United and reach the final, the second of his tenure.
"Against Manchester United we have to play strong. To defend is not the correct course of action in this case. We have to play with aggression and put them under pressure."
I'm not buying it. I think the first 15 minutes should be amazing to watch. The longer Barca stays in the game, the tighter the noose gets on United. Barca isn't expected to win, and the away goal is most precious--and it's theirs to get. Not being a supporter of either side, I'm rooting for the bigger storyline here, the better game, and that's clearly a Manchester United-Liverpool final. Right now, those are the two underdogs, yet each has something in its favor: United being at home, Liverpool chasing an away goal.

Football and sport is fascinating for these types of scenarios. It's something to cherish.

Eriksson Out at Manchester City?

Sven-Goran Eriksson is apparently out as Manchester City manager. Winners of just two of their last 12, City owner and human rights offender Thaksin Shinawatra has been hinting about this possible move over the past few weeks.

Sky Sports reports this quote from Eriksson's agent Athole Still:
"That's the way that it's looking - believe me I don't know, I am just giving an answer and a reasonably-formed opinion - it's looking odds against. It's just developments over the last couple of days. If Dr Shinawatra was going to give his ringing support we would have heard it over the last couple of days."
Eriksson and Shinawatra met over the weekend, and the manager's fate was apparently decided then.

No biggie for Sven really. He got City off to a furious start, and his track record is nothing to sneeze at. He won't be collecting unemployment checks for long. Some reports have Eriksson headed back to one of his old stomps at Benfica. Marcello Lippi has apparently snubbed the Portuguese club. Eriksson has twice coached at Benfica, winning three domestic championships, a Portuguese Cup and was runner-up in the UEFA Cup in 1982-83, losing to Anderlecht.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

This week's Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup gets down to crunch time with some commentary, analysis and gloating over the weekend action in Europe. Chelsea fans rejoice, this blog's for you today--for the most part.

Top of the 18 reports some spoilers on the FA player of the year and young player of the year awards. No surprises really. Also, there’s some catching up on the Man. U. scuffle with the Stamford Bridge staff over the weekend.

Blue Champions, a Chelsea fan blog, chimes in with chagrin over the lack of blue among the player of the year nominees.

One more nod to the Blues. Living True Blue says he’s never been prouder to be a Chelsea hack.

101 Great Goals has a complete roundup of European highlights from the weekend. Relive Chelsea’s last-gasp win over the Manchester United, check in on the tight race for second in Portugal between Sporting and Guimaraes (tied with two games to go), or the formality that is the title race in La Liga. Oh by the way, Celtic and Rangers hooked up again; that’s starting to take on a Red Sox-Yankees feel in that these two seem to play every other weekend, no?

Footballing World points out that United had conceded but one penalty this season prior to Saturday’s game-winner from Michael Ballack. Surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t happy with the call against Michael Carrick for handball. Hmmm, that noose is getting a little tight in Manchester. Could we be seeing an Arsenal repeat where everything gets away: the Premiership, the Champions League, the domestic trophies? Could Avram Grant have the last laugh on all of them and scoop up a treble of his own: Premiership, Champions League, Carling Cup?

Good friends at Oh You Beauty report on Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Birmingham. No shocker really with the fourth essentially wrapped up in England, and a massive Champions League semifinal return leg on Wednesday. Good to see Liverpool rally from 0-2 down to earn the point; limping into Stamford Bridge is no way to prepare.

Lots of good stuff at our other friend’s spot at Talking to the Doll. The Benfica site recaps a 2-0 win for the club over Belenenses, and points out that Benfica’s fate is out of its hands. It trails Sporting and Guimaraes by a point for the second automatic Champions League berth; third gets into the qualifying round and fourth plays in the UEFA Cup. Benfica has had a dreadful April, losing the domestic cup semifinal and shameful fashion to Sporting and now falling tantalizingly behind in league.

MLS Rumors reports Volkswagen is close to wrapping up a deal to become a shirt sponsor for D.C. United. How long before we get that in America’s “other” major sports?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Whine and Cheese for Sir Alex Ferguson

My God when did Sir Alex Ferguson turn into this whining little girl?

Reuters reports the king of all managers says the scheduling of this weekend's potential title-clincher for the Reds at Stamford Bridge favors Chelsea. Ferguson's complaint is that Man U. has one fewer day to prep for the match than the Londoners. A win wraps up a second straight title for Ferguson's club.
"We stayed overnight in Barcelona. Then we had a light training session at Barcelona's training ground. Being in the sun and having a day relaxing is probably the best thing we could have done. Once you shake hands with the devil (the television companies) there is nothing you can do about it. 'It is not fair but what can you do? It happened to us last year after the semi-final with AC Milan when we had to play Manchester City on the Saturday lunchtime straight afterwards. We just get on with it."
Thing is, United won that match against City and clinched the title the next day when Arsenal and Chelsea drew. It did, however, lose in the Champions League semifinals the follow Wednesday to eventual winner AC Milan; therein lies the crux of Sir Alex's whining. He'll get the Premiership, one way or another, and he knows it. It's the Champions League he wants, and what he doesn't want is to suffer the same fate Arsene Wenger and Arsenal faced when the Gunners had to play Liverpool three times in a six-day period recently.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

U.S. Olympic Draw Released

Do you give a damn about the Olympic soccer tournament? Probably not. Personally, it's one of those things, that if it's on TV--which it won't be--I'll watch it, otherwise, bleh.

The U.S. learned it's draw for the tournament, and its group pairing is brutal. The Yanks will have to take on Japan, Nigeria and the Netherlands if it hopes to make the final eight. Argentina, Brazil and Italy head the other three groups. If this is the base for the 2010 World Cup team, the U.S. will get a stern test to be sure.

Here is the draw:
  • USA, Netherlands, Nigeria, Japan
  • Argentina, Ivory Coast, Serbia, Australia,
  • Brazil, Belgium, China, New Zealand
  • Italy, Cameroon, South Korea, Honduras

Manchester United Survives Ronaldo Miss

Cristiano Ronaldo's missed penalty kick in yesterday's Champions League semifinal first leg at Barcelona has apparently driven Sir Alex Ferguson mad. The greatest manager in football history was actually quoted: "... maybe it came too early for us." Good one. Almost as good as those folks who wanted the New England Patriots to lose a game before the playoffs began last NFL season in order to relieve some of the pressure that accompanies the chase for an undefeated season.


Sir Alex's quote is spin, pure and simple. Ronaldo blew it, and blew it badly. He had Barca keeper Victor Valdes diving in the wrong direction, aimed for the top corner as any stellar penalty taker should, and pushed it wide of the goal. Manchester United is fortunate to have the return leg at Old Trafford, because this gaffe can be quickly overturned and forgotten.

Ultimately, Barcelona has to be supremely disappointed with the outcome yesterday. It dominated the run of play for the most part, got the most fortunate of breaks with Ronaldo miss, and still was unable to get a favorable result. Barca can score at Old Trafford, but will it keep Man U. off the board? Unlikely.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

As I was saying...

... before I was so rudely interrupted,

This Blog Is Back

Check in tomorrow for Champions League analysis. Coming soon: Thoughts on the Premiership race; Arsenal's plight and comprehensive Euro 2008 previews.