Monday, August 30, 2010

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

Someone mention cartwheels?
Bob Bradley is still the U.S. national team coach. Robinho is still headed for Milan. David Villa scored a goal. Barcelona leads La Liga.

Ho-hum, all the planets are in line 2012 style; it must be time for another Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup: 
  • Nutmeg Radio bemoans the perpetual limbo surrounding Bob Bradley's status as U.S. national team coach.
  • InternationalED, meanwhile, isn't sold on Juergen Klinsmann as the next in line for Bradley's seat.
  • Bradley's next stop looks like Aston Villa of the Premier League, but if you ask Aston Villa Central, they're not doing cartwheels over the news. 
  • Ditto, A More Splendid Life, who calls the whole Bradley-to-Villa thing embarrassing.
  • More excellent analysis on Bradley's capabilities as a Premier League coach from EPL Talk.
  • With one day left in the transfer window, could we finally see Robinho head to Milan? Ask Goal.com.
  • A Minute News says Roque Santa Cruz could also be on the way out of City.
  • Real Madrid and Mallorca slugged to a scoreless draw to open the Jose Mourinho era. Ugh. The Boss says Madrid should have won. Duh.
  • The excellent Reuters Soccer Blog speculates on who will emerge at Madrid as the team's version of Milito.
  • Goal.com quotes Wesley Sneijder: Mourinho will occupy Sir Alex Ferguson's seat at Man. U.--some day.
  • It's like the World Cup never ended: Iniesta scores and Spai, err, Barcelona wins.
  • Hleb is coming to Benfica from Barcelona, so says Total Football Madness.
  • More Benfica news: Napoli has signed Hassan Yebda.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Which is Better? Champions League vs. Europa League

The UEFA Cup, which goes to
Europa League winner.
OK, before you light up the flame mails, yes there's no comparison between the quality of teams in the Europa League compared to the Champions League. And yes, I get it that some teams in the Europa League might not give two craps about it and would rather focus on domestic competition, especially if they can win a first division title and get in the Champions League and have no shot to win Europa.

Thanks. I got that. We're talking NCAA v. NIT. True Dat.

But for today's purposes and for the sake of altruism, let's look at the two competitions on somewhat level terms. Between the two, I'll take the Europa League.

The Champions League, especially the group stages, is such a money-grab whore of a league, that it should offend every fan of football played at the highest level. Look at the talent gap between the Pot 1 teams and those fighting for third and fourth spots in each group. By the way, those third and fourth placers end up in the Europa League -- lucky them. It's where they belong to begin with.

Hapoel Tel Aviv gets a trip to Lisbon and Lyon--and gets to get smacked around for 90 minutes in each city. Bursaspor? Bursaspor? OK. Have fun at Old Trafford, Valencia, and Glasgow. Oh yeah, and the fans who decide to show up in each of those cities? Sure, you'll see Bursaspor's Starting 11, but what will you see from your home teams? Likely the B-Team. That's Champions League football at its finest.

Shall we continue? Dracula's team, CFR Cluj was the Cinderella team a couple of years ago, but in the end was an annoying speed bump for the top two teams in its group on their way to the Round of 16 and the money rounds of the Champions League. Rinse, lather, repeat this year for Bayern and Roma, just the way it was for Roma and Chelsea in the 2008-09 tournament. BTW, Cluj ended up last in its group two years ago.

I'd rail against MSK Zilina, but you get the idea.

I'll take the Europa League. This first group stage after today's draw is much more competitive. There's less of a gap between the teams and once the Champions League castoffs join for the final rounds, the level of play improves dramatically. You have a better chance for two squads from the same country vying for a spot in the late rounds. You have a better chance to pair clubs from rival nations that normally wouldn't get on the same pitch. You have a better chance, especially in later rounds, for teams to get hungry and pull out all stops to win.

You can't say that in the Champions League, where legitimately, what, six teams have a chance to win? Money talks, and bullshit walks to the Europa League. Sure Tottenham might get out of the group stage, but will it have a shot against one of the top eight? Nope. Benfica, a scoring machine last year. What if they get out? Will it have the legs to beat a Chelsea, Inter or Bayern. Likely no. How about a minnow; a Valencia, Braga or even Auxerre? Let's say they pull off an upset and get into the second round ahead of what we'd consider to be the Top 16. Now you're looking at even more of a lopsided result in the knockout stages.

The Champions League used to be great -- when it was the European Champions Cup and left solely to the domestic champions of Europe. The competition was exclusively knockout style and the competition was fierce. You crowned a true champion that played hard from round one. Today, the champions don't arrive until the final 16, or final eight sometimes.

The Europa League may strictly be NIT to the Champions League's NCAA, but for quality of competition, I'll tune in there for the time being.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Annual Champions League Consipracy Draw

Champions Cup
I'm a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the Champions League draw (Euro and World Cup too). I hold fast that these aren't random, and if there's a David-Blaine-Street-Magic way to rig these suckers, they're going to be rigged. That said, here is my annual Champions League Conspiracy Draw. Enjoy:

Group A: Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Basel, Zilna
Conspiracy theory: There's no way UEFA misses out on Mourinho v. Inter

Group B: Barcelona, Marseille, Spurs, Partizan
Conspiracy theory:  Barca's annual cakewalk
 
Group C: Manchester United, Werder Bremen, Ajax, Cluj
Conspiracy theory: Sir Alex in Transylvania is too juicy not to happen

Group D: Chelsea, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel
Conspiracy theory: Chelsea has to play a Portuguese team--it's the law!

Group E: Arsenal, Valencia, Braga, Twente
Conspiracy theory: Beware Braga!

Group F: Bayern Munich, Roma, Rangers, Rubin Kazan
Conspiracy theory: The three Rs: Roma, Rangers and Rubin

Group G: AC Milan, Shakhtar, Sparta, Auxerre
Conspiracy theory:  Ukraine v. Mother Russia: Awesomesauce

Group H: Lyon, Panathinaikos, Buraspor, FC KĂžbenhavn,
Conspiracy theory: Greece v. Turkey: Awesomesauce 2

Decision Day for U.S. coach Bob Bradley

Bob Bradley
Mark the date: Oct. 9, 2010. You won't see Bob Bradley coaching the U.S. men's national team thereafter. The U.S. hosts Poland at Soldier Field (please hold all "Da Bears" jokes until after this blog entry is posted), and that should be Bradley's swan song as the leader of your men's national team.

Bradley's future as head coach has been topic of speculation since the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana at the World Cup--and even prior to that I would say. He is supposed to meet with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati today, and chances are, as SI's Grant Wahl writes today, Bradley won't come out of the meeting with a contract extension. No, instead the likely outcome is that Bradley and Gulati will mutually agree to separate and Bradley will get his sendoff at ugly Soldier Field in Chicago.

I'm going to call B.S. on Wahl's theory that the U.S. players were distracted by Bradley's contract uncertainty during a recent friendly against Brazil. Brazil smoked the U.S. 2-0 at the New Meadowlands in front of 78,000 fans. The boys didn't have their heads in the clouds about Bradley; they were stomped and deservedly so by a better team.

And that was the case at the World Cup, where the U.S., yes, won its group to advance to the knockout rounds, but barely. It needed a miracle goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria to do so, after managing a fortunate draw against England and a devilish 2-2 tie against Slovenia. The U.S. went down hard in extra time against Ghana and many shortcomings were exposed that point to vast gaps in player development and coaching that need to be addressed. Bob Bradley was the right guy for 2010, I suppose. He's not the right guy for 2014. And neither is "another Bob Bradley type."

Gulati, if you ask me, is as much under fire as Bradley here. He's gone through the best America has in Bruce Arena and Bradley and the best they managed was Arena's 2002 march to the quarterfinals. It would be crushing to believe that's the best the U.S. can accomplish and will accomplish.

But does anyone honestly see enough growth and grasp of player development to replace the Dempseys, Donovans and Bocanegras of the world in four short years? Are there stars stashed away at some Olympic development camp that we don't know about? Doubtful.

The answer has to come in the form of a strong, internationally tested coach. Granted Fabio Capello hasn't set the world on fire on the England bench, but he did whip that team into shape and resurrected hope after the Steve McClaren fiasco. Bradley's reign hasn't been a fiasco, but it hasn't nudged the U.S. forward enough, either.

So who is next for Gulati? What are his options? Lord knows everyone has Jurgen Klinsmann at the top of their lists and he might be the guy. Is he the right guy? Who knows? Coaching a talented Germany team in 2006 and finishing third at the World Cup with that roster is one thing. Turning Jozy Altidore into a disciplined finisher is quite another.

Here's hoping U.S. Soccer spends some big bucks on restructuring at the top, isn't afraid to gamble on a foreign coach and brings some European or South American influence to the American game. Otherwise, Bob Bradley might as well get his extension, pass on the Aston Villa job, and take us to the second round of the 2014 World Cup--hell, there's no shame in losing to Brazil. Is there?