Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Weekend in Links - Mourinho and Mata, Ribery the Hero and More

After what has been an interesting pre-Champions League matchday weekend, there are a lot of victories, stories, and players to keep track of. Starting directly from the Premier League, the big clash between Tottenham and Chelsea at White Hart Lane ended 1-1. While some will be pondering whether the result affirms Tottenham as a definite title contender, others will have kept their eye on Jose Mourinho and his half-time substitution which featured Juan Mata. Henry Winter writes about the substitution, and Mourinho's effect on the final result of the match.

While Mourinho could be raising doubts with a few unfavourable results among his Chelsea fans, Franck Ribery remains a definite fan favorite at Bayern Munich says Raphael Honigstein. His article in the Guardian reflects on the Frenchman's career, and his fine form which has continued into this new season under new manager Guardiola. FC Bayern currently share the top of the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund after their latest 1-0 home win over Wolfsburg.

Another manager making a considerable impact at his new club is Rudi Garcia at Roma, who leads the Serie A with six victories in six played. In an article I wrote for World Soccer Talk, I break down the giallorossi's latest 5-0 victory over Bologna, and how they've thrived so well under this new manager. With two big matches coming up against Inter Milan and Napoli, Roma will have a lot to prove on whether they can truly contend for the scudetto.

Returning to England, tactical expert Michael Cox analyzes Liverpool's 3-1 away victory against Sunderland, and in preparation for the FIFA 14 review I'm writing up, In Bed With Maradona has taken a look at the top fives of FIFA 14.

What were your thoughts on this weekend's action? Comment your thoughts on this weekend, and your predictions for the upcoming midweek Champions League matchday below!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Premier League's Excitement Returns

Written by Ashwin Raja.

I am happy to say, after this week’s round of matches, that the Premier League the world knows and loves for its unparalleled unpredictability, excitement and drama, is well and truly back. I must say, that I in concordance with many a seasoned football fan was disappointed with the way the season kicked off. Lots of drab and low-scoring affairs littered the first few weeks of the season. It was a coup of sorts for the Premier League, which has always been known to get stuck right in from the off.

The level of intensity and excitement in the past week’s matches were certainly what the doctor ordered and Manchester City’s humbling of the old enemy United, certainly was the earth-shattering result the Premier League kicks up every now and then, and the one that fans were so eager to see. A few interesting patterns seemed to emerge at the conclusion of this gameweek, if not having merely confirmed passing observations. Liverpool, demonstrating again, the inconsistency that has dogged them in their pursuit of the Champions League in seasons past. Chelsea, though managing to beat Fulham, looked well below par and are perhaps victims of the Mourinho factor that they crave so much. Arsenal, on the other hand are continuing their rich vein of form, thanks in no small part to the mercurial Mesut Ozil and the hot streak that Aaron Ramsey is currently in. With their immediate rivals going through a transition of sorts with new managers and the ensuing playing styles, the title is definitely there for the taking as far as Arsenal are concerned.

Liverpool - Southampton

Following an exciting draw in midweek at the Liberty Stadium, Liverpool looked to make amends and reaffirm their standing as league leaders on Saturday as they hosted Southampton at Anfield. From the very off, it was clear that Liverpool would struggle to find that creative spark in the center of the park, especially in the absence of Philippe Coutinho, who has been nothing short of spectacular since his 8.5 million pound move from Inter Milan in January.

Steven Gerrard came close on a couple of occasions with well-placed free kicks, but Artur Boruc was alive to the danger. New boy Victor Moses, making his Anfield debut had a rather subdued game, and despite making a few decent runs in behind the Saints’ defense, could not make it count when he needed to. The other former Chelsea man in Liverpool’s ranks, Daniel Sturridge was looking to make it 5 goals in 5 games, and in all honesty, simply lacked the service and the guile on the day to do that. He will however feel that Liverpool should have gotten more on the day, considering they had a valid penalty claim turned down.

The Southampton goal came off of a set-piece, and one that should have been dealt with especially with Brendan Rodgers fielding 4 center backs in defense. That decision in itself showed an inherent flaw in Rodgers’ mentality, namely, fixing something that isn’t broke. With Martin Kelly, Jose Enrique and Andre Wisdom all available for selection, it was a perplexing decision. Despite having given his reasons, it was definitely a sign that he is not afraid to experiment with the resources at his disposal and for a club that aims to be in the top 4 come next May, the experimentation must be kept to a minimum.

Chelsea - Fulham

Jose Mourinho’s second coming at Stamford Bridge has hardly been perfect and Chelsea’s play, hardly characteristic of Mourinho teams. What was characteristic about Chelsea’s performance on Saturday, however, was their ability to grind out the result even when not at their best. Despite scoring two goals, Chelsea truly flattered to deceive. Similar to previous games, they were not as solid at the back and look vulnerable every now and then. Luckily enough, Fulham did not live up to their attacking potential and Chelsea were saved of any potential blushes. This represents a shift away from Mourinho’s style of shutting up shop once his team has asserted a certain level of control on the game.

Another notable point was Juan Mata’s continuing absence. Rather sardonically, it was his ‘successor’, Oscar, in the eyes of Mourinho who grabbed the first goal. Whether Mata, who was Chelsea’s player of the year last season will be another hapless victim of Mourinho’s whims and fantasies just like Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, remains to be seen. Personally, I think it would be a real shame if that were to happen. He is that one spark of creativity that can help Chelsea unlock the opposition’s defence and no disrespect to Kevin de Bruyne, Andre Schurrle, Frank Lampard and the horde of other attacking mids that Chelsea have, he is head and shoulders above the competition. Being left out of the starting eleven cannot help his chances of securing a ticket to Spain’s defence of the World Cup at Brazil in little under a year’s time, especially when the competition for that number 10 position has not been more fierce.

Manchester Derby

Leading up to the Manchester derby, much was made of how different the Manchester clubs, both under the stewardship of new managers were this season. David Moyes, certainly feeling the pressure after defeat to Liverpool and and a draw at Chelsea would have been eager to set things right. It would, on the other hand be Manuel Pellegrini’s first big test so to speak as Manchester City boss. The general consensus before kick-off was that the game would be a close one, perhaps decided as such games so often are, by a bit of individual brilliance or a refereeing decision going one team’s way.

Sergio Aguero ensured that all pre-match predictions were out the window with a superb close quarters finish early on in the first half. After that, the proverbial dam was released, and it was all City. Yaya Toure put in another terrific performance at the heart of the Blues’ midfield and his return to such kind of form that was instrumental in them lifting the title 2 seasons ago, can only bode well. Alvaro Negredo who got the nod ahead of Edin Dzeko put in a fine performance and impressed with his workmanlike attitude that fetched him a couple of assists and almost a goal. The fact that they put up such a dominant display without David Silva will surely be a menacing sight to the other title contenders.

Take the case of the Reds. Apart from Wayne Rooney, who got a late consolation with a superb freekick to beat a diving Joe Hart, not a single player influenced the game in a way that a Manchester United player is expected to. Robin van Persie was a big miss, and there was a gaping hole in the final third. It just goes to reinforce the point that Manchester United’s fate is closely, if not entirely dependent on his form. New acquisition Marouanne Fellaini had a quiet game to say the least, and Moyes’ detractors will be quick to point that out. Such was his state of relative dormancy, it warrants the question as to whether Fellaini is even the kind of player really needed. At Everton, he made his name giving hell to defenders on set pieces, chipping in with a few goals now and then, and putting in a tackle or two, in addition to racking up the yellow cards and the hair on the top of his head. Some were bold enough as to liken him to Yaya Toure. Based on Sunday’s evidence, it is foolish to even suggest comparison.

On paper, United have never had the strongest squad or even starting eleven in the last few seasons, including the ones they won the league in. Sure, they did and do have some big, big names in Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, but what made the difference was the ‘Fergie factor’. The winning mentality that was instilled at the very core of the team by the wily old Scot was what gave them that identity and the confidence to go out and win. Each and every player believed he was a Champion, and that is what is currently missing. Moyes, undoubtedly is a terrific man manager and his ten years of Everton would never suggest otherwise, but the fact is, he’s no Sir Alex Ferguson.

The United of old would rarely have been outclassed so much, but if they did, they would have dusted themselves and would have rearing to go immediately. That resilience is something they must hold on to if they are to aim for any sort of success this season. While those questions are slightly stifled from United's 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, the horizon is still very hazy for Manchester United fans.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Week of the Neopolitans

It has been quite the week in European soccer/football, and as the season progresses there's finally a huge sense of excitement from the results of the round of Champions League group stages which will inevitably bleed over into a weekend of derbys and possibly season-defining matches. The result which dominated the headlines of recent Italian press was Napoli's 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund, a match which saw a club lift itself to new heights while another gradually self-imploded, all in 90 minutes. Napoli, currently sharing the top of the Serie A (with Roma) has continued to maintain an impeccable record to the season in what was a fantastic Champions League debut victory over last years runners-up. Now, the excitement around Napoli continues to rise as they prepare for a visit to the San Siro to take on AC Milan this Sunday, and if the Neopolitans continue their victorious run, a new title-contender could be firmly established in the Serie A.

The midweek events at the San Paolo were the first part of an incredibly defining week for Napoli fans. A 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund was the best way possible for Benitez to debut with his new club in the Champions League. Although he'll have to acknowledge that something in the Borussia Dortmund's system collapsed in that match, and that something was the man that is Jurgen Klopp. The man, the pillar of the club which pushed them to the top of German football with a beautiful style of play. In the 29th minute as Subotic was coming back on after being patched up for a nasty gash near the eyebrow, Napoli took their corner, the central defender was sprinting towards his box hoping to reach his man he needed to mark. While he did get there in time, it was too late as the Dortmund defence had already been shaken by the confusion and the unforgiving Higuain headed Napoli into the lead.

Klopp collapsed, rage overcame him and his facial muscles as he menacingly advanced and protested to the closest official near him. But his release of anger and frustration did not amuse or impress anyone, and he was quickly dismissed for his vehement protests. It wasn't much later that the colossal central defender Mats Hummels began touching his hamstring and had to be replaced by Aubameyang near the end of the first half. The first half also featured Borussia's keeper Weidenfeller receive a straight red card when he charged out of the box towards Higuain on the break and instinctually stopped the mid-air ball with his hands.

Napoli closed off the match without much trouble after that against a shattered 10-man Borussia Dortmund, largely thanks to a beautifully looped free kick by true hometown Neopolitan Lorenzo Insigne. While Borussia managed to squeeze out an own goal courtesy of Zuniga's attempt to clear the ball out of the box with his heel, the story of the night had already been written, as a crushed Borussia Dortmund fell to the imposing Italian opponents.

While the task accomplished by Benitez's men was definitely formidable, there's a very stark sense that with the proper focus this Napoli side could very easily continue their victorious run into the weekend away against AC Milan. The rossoneri have been barely scraping points, from the late midweek victory over Celtic to the even later 2-2 draw against Torino equalized by a 96th minute penalty by Balotelli. This is the chance for Napoli to possibly take charge of the Serie A, as Roma host their cousins Lazio for the city derby in what could be a tricky match for the giallorossi.

Compared to the immense optimism around Napoli, it seems like Milan are bracing themselves for what many have already said is a fundamental match. While Mexes is coming out saying that he'd always pick Balotelli over Higuain and that Milan is still at the start of their campaign, with the injuries of supposed key-signing Kaka to Poli, Montolivo, El Sharaawy, along with just about half the defence, Milan is looking very shaky even if they'll be playing at home.

It feels like while there could be an interesting tactical battle between how Benitez would break down Allegri's AC Milan side, right now it seems like Allegri has just about 11 players to work with compared to Benitez's fit and inspired squad. If this match is won by Napoli, it could be the beginning of a completely new era for the Serie A, which could possibly even extend to a strong Champions League run. While it's also important to acknowledge that the season is long and many surprises await us, from the way this week could go, it could very well become the season of the Neopolitans.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Big Names, Big Money

As the summer transfer window has finally drawn to a close, there is definitely plenty to talk about. While the ludicrously spending Premier League was definitely the center of attention as the transfer market neared its closing, there were plenty of very intriguing exchanges all across Europe. There's is a ton of dealings to talk about, so it's best to get started with the biggest of names.

The deal which everyone awaited with trepidation was that of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. It took 95 million Euros from the Galacticos to secure the left winger, who will be giving Ancelotti a few things to think about tactically. While the most obvious solution to the coach's problems would be to put Bale on the left wing and push Ronaldo to the center, what remains of Benzema? Does the Frenchman become your supersub? And that's without considering Modric and Di Maria, both left footed players which will be forced to adapt after the arrival of the latest Galactico.

While the price tag on Bale could be considered a little exaggerated, Tottenham have spent just about every penny reinforcing their squad in just about every way possible. Roberto Soldado and Roma's Argentine wonderkid Erik Lamela were the priciest of Tottenham's additions, both costing 30 million Euros each. Behind them are Paulinho, Eriksen, Capoue, Chiriches, and Chadli; all of which are exceptional additions to a side which is looking to reinvent itself after losing its most influential player. Yet there's a few important questions Spurs should be asking themselves, whether the new players can mesh together quickly enough, and whether amongst all of these additions perhaps just one defender (Chiriches) might not be enough? Only time will tell, but if Tottenham manage to seal any possible defensive worries then perhaps there's a side ready to compete for a place in the top three.

As Arsenal fans eyed their cousins full of envy throughout the window, in the final day Wenger finally found a player worth signing. None other than Mesut Ozil, the former Real Madrid man left the Bernabeu for around 50 million Euros, becoming both the most expensive German and Arsenal's most expensive signing yet. A truly fantastic signing for a side which has been searching for some stability. While the recent victory over Tottenham shows signs of recovery, with the insertion of Ozil into the team Arsenal should find even more ways to pick apart defences with their entrancing style of play. Yet the question looms, does this new signing solve Arsenal's problems? I can't say that it will, but if anything it's a definite distraction from them. An uplifting end to what seemed to be a dismal summer for Arsenal fans.

And if we're going to talk about big names, it seems nearly impossible not to mention Kaka's fabled return to AC Milan. The Rossoneri were able to nab the Brazilian for free, and it's being reported that the player took a fairly hefty cut to his wages just to return to the club with which he found the most success. While returning AC Milan legends haven't always been as successful as fans might have hoped (Shevchenko being the most obvious example), it seems like Kaka's return will give exactly what the side needs to prosper in this upcoming season. After having sold Kevin Prince Boateng to Schalke 04 for 12 million Euros, Milan needed a midfielder with creativity to support the young Balotelli and El Sharaawy. Who better than Kaka?

Are you convinced by these transfers? Have these clubs properly strengthened their squads, or are they too focussed on flashy attacking players? What was your favorite transfer of this summer? Share your thoughts on the transfer window below!


Related Posts with Thumbnails