Monday, October 28, 2013

FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013 Shortlist Revealed

FIFA have recently revealed the 23 man shortlist for the 2013 Ballon d'Or award, along with the ten nominees for the FIFA World Coach of the year award. The final winners will be revealed January 13th 2014, along with the FIFA FIFPro World XI, FIFA Puskás Award (most beautiful goal of the year), FIFA Presidential Award, and FIFA Fair Play Award.

Listed below are the 23 players with the chance to claim the 2013 Ballon d'Or:

Gareth Bale (Wales)
Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Radamel Falcao (Colombia)
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Sweden)
Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Thomas Müller (Germany)
Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Neymar (Brazil)
Mesut Özil (Germany)
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Franck Ribéry (France)
Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Thiago Silva (Brazil)
Yaya Touré (Côte d’Ivoire)
Robin Van Persie (Netherlands)
Xavi (Spain)

And here are the ten coaches nominated for FIFA World Coach of the year:

Carlo Ancelotti (Italy/Paris Saint-Germain FC/Real Madrid CF)
Rafael Benítez (Spain/Chelsea FC/SSC Napoli)
Antonio Conte (Italy/Juventus)
Vicente Del Bosque (Spain/Spain national team)
Sir Alex Ferguson (Scotland/Manchester United FC former coach)
Jupp Heynckes (Germany/FC Bayern München former coach)
Jürgen Klopp (Germany/Borussia Dortmund)
José Mourinho (Portugal/Real Madrid CF/Chelsea FC)
Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazil/Brazil national team)
Arsène Wenger (France/Arsenal FC).

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Ballon d'Or list is the absence of Wayne Rooney among the nominees. With Messi and Ronaldo probably amongst the top names, is there the possibility of a new name cracking through to claim the prestigious reward? While I'm definitely rooting for Zlatan, if Neymar continues to dazzle like he did in the recent Clasico then perhaps the decision could be much more difficult than it has been in past years. As for the coaches, while it would definitely be nice to see Sir Alex Ferguson get the award as a final recognition after his retirement, it's very difficult to look past Jupp Heynckes. After claiming the treble last season with Bayern Munich, Heynckes seems to be the favorite for the coaching award.

What are your thoughts about the shortlists? Is anyone being left out? Who do you think will claim the 2013 FIFA Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Coach of the year? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Barcelona Claim El Clasico in Tight 2-1 Victory

The first Clasico of La Liga has come at an incredibly interesting time of the season. With second placed Atletico Madrid the main underdog success story of La Liga and Zlatan Ibrahimovic conquering Europe’s attention in the midweek, Barcelona and Real Madrid (along with Messi and Ronaldo) had a lot to prove in this upcoming Clasico. Barcelona have come out ahead in the Camp Nou with a 2-1 victory which featured fantastic performances from so many individual players.

As the first half began with a tentative and defensive Real Madrid keeping Messi away from the play, Barcelona continuously poked at the holes in the Madrid defence. It was Iniesta who eventually slipped Neymar a through ball which the Brazilian finished past Diego Lopez. Neymar’s increasingly confident and dominating performance was in stark contrast with the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale, who just wasn’t able to integrate himself into Real Madrid’s play during their sparse moments of possession.

Real Madrid’s reaction came about laboriously with extreme caution. Ancelotti was always certain to leave a few fellows behind for Messi who was kept fairly quiet on the right flank, leaving Iniesta, Neymar, and Fabregas plenty of space to combine and entertain. While Modric did his best to tighten up his side’s possession when possible, the lack of Ozil’s presence was incredibly apparent in the difficulty Real had knitting together the midfield and attack. Although Los Blancos eventually forced a tough save from Valdes when Ronaldo crossed to Khedira for stretched shot, the first half scoreline of 1-0 a rightful reflection of the Blaugrana superiority.

The proper reaction came from Real Madrid in the second half, with much more aggressive and attacking play. Ten minutes into the half Ancelotti decides to substitute already booked Sergio Ramos for Illarramendi, and the match opened itself up to an amazing display from both teams. Barcelona were always looking to punish Real with Neymar who woke Diego Lopez up with a powerful close range volley which the keeper parried away. Bale was taken off ten minutes later (an incredibly quiet performance from the world’s most expensive player), replaced by Benzema while Gerardo Martino put in Alexis Sanchez for Fabregas towards the 70th. Just a couple of minutes later the Frenchman blasted the bottom the crossbar with a long range shot which seemed destined for the top corner.

As both sides continued to play with an intoxicating attacking vigour, the coaches fought their tactical battle: Ancelotti replacing Di Maria with Jese Rodriguez and Martino taking off Iniesta for Alexandre Song. It was the substitutes which began to dominate the game as Alexis Sanchez doubled Barcelona’s lead with an exquisite long range chip. Both sides continued to attack, and Real Madrid finally got a deserved goal with Jese Rodriguez finishing past Valdes after being fed a fantastic assist from Cristiano Ronaldo in the 91st minute to make it 2-1 just at the end of the match.

This was a Clasico to remember with the best performances not just being Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s, it was Neymar who left his mark on the game, scoring the first assisting Sanchez for the second. The Brazilian boy from Santos has integrated himself seamlessly into Barcelona’s system, dismantling the Real defence and proving to be the true signing of the summer thus far in La Liga. Real Madrid’s performance (especially in the second half) deserves definite praise, Ancelotti probably feeling fairly unlucky that Ronaldo wasn’t given a penalty when he was bumped by last man Mascherano in the box. However it was Barcelona who claimed the three points of this pivotal clash, now six points ahead of Real Madrid and just four ahead of Atletico Madrid who have a game in hand tomorrow against Real Betis.

What were your thoughts on Barcelona's victory? Which player impressed you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ibrahimovic Delights as 2014 World Cup Approaches

Paris Saint Germain's forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic can now be truly classified as an unstoppable goalscoring force, especially as he has been propelling PSG to the top of the Ligue 1 and their Champions League group with increasingly stunning performances. Last weekend in Ligue Un he brought back his kung-fu goalscoring style to produce a stunning backheel goal to open the scoring in his side's 4-0 weekend win over Bastia (he finished that match off with a brace). Ibra has now followed up with four fantastic goals in PSG's 5-0 victory over Anderlecht in Belgium (Cavani tucked one away as well with a lovely finish). While the debate regarding Messi and Ronaldo as this generation's best soccer/football player seems ever present, it seems about right to eye big Zlatan as a potential challenger after his latest performances.

With the upcoming summer World Cup in Brazil a chance for every top player to imprint his name in history, Ibrahimovic will have a direct chance to assert himself as the name to remember in the next international break's upcoming FIFA World Cup Qualifier match when Sweden and Portugal face off. At 32 years old this might be Ibra's last possible World Cup, making this upcoming summer the perfect time to see the big Swede in his prime. If the Swedish striker can conjure up a decisive goal for his side to knock Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo's out of the upcoming World Cup, it would difficult not to consider him one of the top names of the upcoming Ballon d'Or list.

There's still plenty of time to assess how those top names will rank, especially with this weekend's upcoming Clasico in La Liga when Barcelona host Real Madrid. Meanwhile Zlatan's PSG side will be travelling to face Saint-Etienne, giving the forward a chance to score a few against a side which has only gotten four points from a possible 15 in their last five fixtures. With 45 goals in his 61 games for PSG (in all competitions) I'm expecting to see Zlatan's name on the scoresheet probably alongside Cavani's. Whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic will earn his spot at the top of the Ballon d'Or list, there is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is conquering France along with Europe with his increasingly amazing goals.

Do you think Ibrahimovic is worthy of the Ballon d'Or? What will it take for him to be worthy? And what about El Clasico? Share your thoughts and predictions below!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

England Secure Spot in Brazil with 2-0 Win Over Poland

There are very few nations which pile the pressure upon their own team the way England does. There was undoubtedly an immense amount of anxiety within Wembley at the start of this final match of World Cup qualifying between England and Poland. Both sides started with a high and frantic tempo, charging at each other constantly trying to establish dominance.

England's start was fairly shaky with poor marking forcing the defenders to correct their mistakes with last-second dramatic tackles, perhaps a secret tactic by Roy Hodgson to fire up the Wembley crowd with some good old fashioned English physicality. If it was a secret tactic it was a risky one, as Lewandowski put one of the best chances of the match wide, almost giving the lead to Poland. Lewandowski and Błaszczykowski were the primary sources of danger for Poland, both of them using their speed to counter-attack whenever England got too comfortable.

As for England, it was Andros Townsend providing England with its biggest opportunities. His incessant running on the right side provided the forwards some great chances from his crosses. After earning England a multitude of corners, Towsnsend curled a swooping shot onto the crossbar with Szczęsny stopping Sturridge's shot which followed. The other England player playing with the same hunger and vivacity as Townsend was on the other flank, Baines was constantly slipping in behind the Polish right side eventually providing Rooney a perfectly placed cross to head in for the lead.

England reached their apex of their performance in the second part of the first half, steadying their defence by maintaining better possession and then bursting forward with incredible vigour. Hodgson's team had created a multitude of chances in the first half, only to be thwarted by poor finishing or Szczęsny's gloves. With Baines constantly surging forward on the left hand side, this allowed Welbeck to drift into the box, forcing Poland to keep track of the two Manchester United forwards along with Daniel Sturridge. While the Polish central defenders gave Rooney acres of space to score at the end of the first half, it was a deserved lead for an impressive England side.

As the second half commenced England never managed to find the intensity they had in the first half. Roy Hodgson tried to solve this problem by replacing the fairly inert Carrick with Frank Lampard, yet his side still couldn't quite achieve a smooth attacking flow. Sturridge was taken off with about ten minutes left, giving Jack Wilshere a chance to knit together the midfield alongside the final substitute of James Milner who replaced a tired Townsend a few minutes later. As the minutes ticked away to the end of the game, in the 88th minute Steven Gerrard secured England's place in the 2014 World Cup with a direct run through the heart of the polish defence, poking the ball into the back of the net for the final result of 2-0.

There was a lot of nervous negativity before these two crucial matches for England, but Hodgson has shown that his England side can play with a surprising amount of attacking fluidity. While there are some possible worries regarding some of the defending, there's still plenty of time until England have to travel to Brazil.

What did you think of England's performance against Poland? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Manchester United's Weighty Hopes for Young Adnan Januzaj

The sound that's being sneezed out of just about everyone's mouths these days is that of "Adnan Januzaj". What before was just a blending of vowels and soft sounding consonants has now become the prodigal son which Manchester United have already hurled their hopes and dreams upon for the season. While Januzaj's second goal could be considered "one-of-a-kind", I can't help but feel some mystical sense of déjà vu as this Manchester United youngster has burst into the side with a fantastic performance. That feeling was present throughout the match, during his gliding runs, winning goals, along with his now forgotten dive. Moyes will be glad that now he too has a speedy, diving, goal-scoring phenomenon to take care of, just like the many his predecessor Ferguson had.

And speaking of the red-nosed retired manager, the young Belgian/Kosovan/Albanian was basically a parting gift from Old Saint Ferguson, and now it's up to Moyes to use him properly. There's been a fair share of Fergie-bred players which have left their mark on the world of football, the notable ones being: David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet it's all too easy to remember the youngsters which had the weighty label of superstar flung on a bit too hastily and ended up tripping on it: Federico Macheda, Bebe, and Obertan being a few of the recent cases. Right now, Januzaj is profiting due to the fact that he's the latest Manchester United winger who's able to score right now. While he's shown some definite talent in his goal-scoring, it's remarkable how good Januzaj's been playing when compared to the dismal performances Ashley Young has been putting in.

So while the desperate outcries of an England future are already being contemplated by Roy Hodgson (with Jack Wilshere sparking up his own thoughts on the matter), perhaps the most important thing to remember about Januzaj is that he's earned David Moyes three important points. For now he'll be training, eyeing how England (and Wilshere) face the international break's final two tests of hosting Montenegro and Poland. Januzaj will have his chance to show his consistency when the Premier League returns and United host Southampton, and there will be plenty of time to judge how well the 18 year-old deals with the high expectations being pencilled into his future.

What are your thoughts on Januzaj's performance? What do you expect from the upcoming international break? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Lessons from the Midweek's Champions League Action

As the Champions League group stage continues to unravel, so do plenty of the teams in the competition. It has been a rough awakening for a few sides as they begin to understand that this year's group stage is no joke. Every team is prepared to make their statement, and as the "underdogs" continue to pull out big results, some age-old titans aren't quite yet ready to concede their positions as the top dogs of Europe (although there are some which begin to quaver). There's an incredible amount of things to cover, so we might as well begin with these three lessons from the Champions League:

1. Italian clubs continue to struggle 

After Napoli's dreamy victory over Borussia Dortmund, everyone had practically forgotten about Italy's inefficiency when it comes to European competition these past few years. Well fear not, all three Italian sides in the Champions League managed to underachieve in one way or another. Perhaps most at fault are Juventus who hosted Galatasaraay at home, the match finishing a 2-2 draw. After Bonucci gifted Drogba the opener, Juve clawed their way back to a 2-1 lead thanks to Quagliarella's 87th minute header. Only one minute later Juventus's atrocious defending allowed unmarked Bulut to equalize, nabbing an important point for the Turkish side.

AC Milan and Napoli didn't do too well either. The rossoneri could only manage a 1-1 draw at Ajax thanks to a late and non-existent penalty by Balotelli, and Napoli crumbled against the fantastic display that Arsenal put on at the Emirates. Of course there will be plenty of excuses (No Higuain for Napoli, Milan's extensive injury list, and who knows what else), Italian sides are staying consistent with their inability to put on a proper display in Europe. 

2. Bayern Munich (current European champions) are only getting stronger.

There was a lot of uncertainty at the start of the season with Pep Guardiola's appointment as Bayern Munich coach, and after their mere 1-0 victory in the weekend over Wolfsburg there were grumblings about whether the new coach was actually improving the side. It's fair to say that after their latest display, Guardiola will get a bit more breathing room (only for a while though). A dominant 3-1 away victory over Manchester City showed that combining last year's Champions League winning squad with Guardiola's tactics and philosophy of play was undoubtedly the right move for Bayern. 

While Joe Hart gave the Germans a helping hand with a poor display, nothing can be taken away from Bayern as they out-pressured, out-passed, and out-played Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City. While City was looking to perhaps insert itself amongst the highest-echelon of European clubs, Bayern and Pep showed them that they've still got a long way to go. Now we can only wonder what heights this Bayern Munich side can reach, and whether they'll be the first team to retain the Champions League trophy.

3. Atletico Madrid show no signs of slowing down.

La Liga has always been an extremely difficult league for clubs (that aren't Real Madrid and Barcelona) to properly establish themselves within, and if you have dreams of aiming for the top, then tough luck. Yet if there's a team that is looking to make a dent in the big two's perfect record of domination, it's Atletico Madrid. After having defeated Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu over the weekend, the midweek trip to Portugal to face Porto seemed a daunting task. Yet Diego Simeone's men maintained their undefeated start to the season in another impressive away victory.

While this time Diego Costa wasn't amongst the goalscorers, after having conceded early in the first half Atleti fought to come back with two second half goals, Arda Turan scoring the 86th minute winner from a sneaky free kick. It's been quite the season thus far for Atletico Madrid fans, their team currently undefeated, top of their Champions League group, and second in La Liga only by goal difference to Barcelona. If Diego Simeone can keep his side concentrated, then perhaps a new contender for La Liga's title (and perhaps even the European title) will emerge. 

Lastly, I want to leave you with an interesting infographic about the Champions League. Take a look below and share your thoughts and predictions regarding the Champions League in the comments!

You can find out more about the infographic and spread betting at Spreadex.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

BBC's Match of the Day Consistently Delivers What is Needed

BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker
I was never very familiar with BBC's well-known soccer/football show. You see, I grew up with the Serie A and its intensely passionate highlight shows which consistently feature an immense variety of journalists, ex-players, coaches, tacticians, and even comedians all together with a live-studio audience.

The well known Italian show "La Domenica Sportiva" (which literally translates to, "The Sunday of Sport") was host to a variety of strange methods which, because it had been the only soccer/football television program which accompanied my upbringing, all seemed incredibly normal to me. Chaotic live post-game interviews with the studio's voices overlapping each other as the player hurriedly fumbles with the microphone and earpiece flung towards him, as he attempts to decipher the barrage of questions, often with wet hair still steaming from the post-game shower.

In the past I'd never really bothered with Match of the Day, I watched Premier League matches live, or found stuttering, eight-pixel highlights on some eastern-european website. But now, every since my first watching, Match of the Day has become a regular part of my soccer/football watching life. In my eyes (especially in the early days when I had just discovered it), MotD was practically a work of art. Fantastic clarity in its presentation, thorough match highlights, snazzy music... what more could I ask for?

Everything is prepared, timed, and professional. While I'm not getting the tactical analysis/breakdown by Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, when MotD offers any humble insights they're always accompanied by dynamic graphics with slowed down replays, making sure I see any sometimes simple but fundamentally important tactical observations I might have missed in my viewing of the highlights.

While I still watch "La Domenica Sportiva" frequently, MotD in comparison is free of extended verbal debates between an ex-player and a journalist as they argue incessantly over the weekend's most recent penalty decision (along with any other managerial, tactical, and refeering decisions which can be scrutinized from a full weekend of league action). MotD is where ultimately the core programming of soccer/football lies. It provides a professional and often insightful review of the Premier League's action to those who aren't able to watch the matches live. If I want deeper tactical analysis I'll go read up on Michael Cox's fantastic tactics blog, or if I want in-depth discussion and reflection I'll listen to The Guardian's Football Weekly podcast (and I can't forget The Football Ramble), but before I can truly appreciate any of these others, I need to have at least seen the goals of the weekend, and MotD delivers exactly that.

As I laud all this praise upon MotD, it's important to keep one key point in mind, these merits do not extend to MotD 2 in my eyes. MotD 2 provides the bare necessity of programming, goals I've yet to see, and then I'm out of there. On the most recent MotD I had the great pleasure of hearing analysis by Everton's incredibly charming and astute manager Roberto Martinez (along Danny Murphy), discussing situations arising from the variety of the weekend's interesting scores with Gary Lineker.

Now while I've mentioned Gary Lineker; compared to the many different lifeless and vapid Italian program conductors, the former player steers the show with definite timing often raising excellent points and questions upon which his guests can easily muse or build upon. I say all this because after watching the latest MotD 2, it just didn't manage to quite reach the levels of Lineker and Martinez's discussions regarding this weekend's matches which begin to put some definite pressures on certain managers of the Premier League (Martin Jol, perhaps even David Moyes...?).

While there are definitely those who will make the case that perhaps MotD lacks consistent "top quality" opinion and analysis (like that of BT Sport's Gary Neville), the overall presentation in the well-timed and well-led BBC show still definitely satisfies. And of course, while I always enjoy the window "La Domenica Sportiva" offers looking into the passionately chaotic world of Italian programming, there's an extremely pleasing sense of polish and professionalism with which BBC's Match of the Day consistently delivers.

What are your thoughts on BBC's Match of the Day? What is your program of choice for your football highlights and analysis? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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