Friday, October 28, 2011

Football's greatest crime

Today's topic...the D word!


The ugliest, saddest part of football. Is that dramatic enough? I don't think you quite get me yet. It is the greatest stain on the beautiful game. The sin that pervades the best sport on the planet. Right, I think we have an idea how I, and any other football fan, feels about diving.

We've all seen it. Over and over again. A player running with the ball, defender goes for the ball (ok that's not always the case), suddenly the offending player flies into the air, hands thrown up and out, falls to a heap on the ground. Sometimes this is followed by a grabbing of the knee or ankle and 3 to 5 rolls along in the ground. That tackle was sheer agony.

It’s a footballing crime that I really don’t think authorities take seriously enough. The worst part about it is, it’s cheating aimed at conning the referee into giving your team a serious advantage, in the worst cases gaining a penalty or getting an opposing player sent off.

Worse yet is the knock on effects it has. It agitates the other team, vilifies the referee unfortunate enough to be fooled, and in the majority of cases they are fooled. Make no mistake it’s extremely difficult in a sport where the referee’s discretion determines just how much contact is too much contact. A striker jinking and weaving through a crowded penalty area who suddenly takes a tumble through the mass of legs being thrust out in an effort to stop him. You can imagine how difficult it is to separate a legitimate foul from a dive, or “simulation” as it’s called.

Another sad repercussion is the repelling effect it has for fans trying to get into the sport. A bunch of guys faking fouls, rolling around on the ground like they've been shot, and immediately popping back to their feet once they get the foul...who wants to watch this?

The worst part about it is, some of the best players are the worst offenders. Players like Luis Suarez (this is something I've heard a lot, not necessarily what I've seen), Cristiano Ronaldo (Although I think he's gotten better), Nani (especially last season), Didier Drogba. Even Stevie G does it, this is one of my favourite videos by the way. These are just a few, high profile players who do it, most everyone does.

Let's get to the solution to the problem. I am 100% against technology in football. I'm against video replays for tight offside decisions, I'm against goal line technology. I understand all the arguments for it, but I like football the way it is. Yes that's my justification.

Having said that, I am ok with using video replay to retroactively punish divers. Opening up retroactive reviews of yellow and red cards during games I think opens up a whole other can of worms that we don't want to get into.

The only stipulation being, these punishments after the fact can only apply in cases where a replay clearly shows that there was no contact with the player in question, that he blatantly dived of his own accord in an attempt to trick the referee. Some replays may show slight contact, "minimal" contact that some people may think was enough to fell a player and others will think otherwise. As long as there was some sort of contact, it may be enough to throw a player off balance, and when you start suspending players just because you think they COULD have stayed on their feet, it just becomes far too subjective.

With all that in mind. I'm thinking suspensions. Hefty suspensions. Players can be suspended for 3 games for various red card offences. Well I say for a blatant dive, suspend a player for 5 games. Yes, F I V E! It could even be more. What defense could you give for someone diving untouched? Everyone does it? It's a habit? It's part of the game? These are all reasons why the punishment should be extremely harsh. The only way to really eradicate it from football is to suspend players for a lengthy amount of time. In normal league play, 5 games means about a month of football. Would a player still dive if he knew he could get suspended for a month for doing it (and with video replays, he will get caught)?

The only example I can recall of a player being suspended for diving, was Arsenal's Eduardo back in 2009. While I think it was a good sign of intent to punish divers, in that case the ban was rescinded upon appeal because they could prove some contact that caused the foul / dive.

Well, here's to hoping someone from FIFA reads this, and enacts the 5 game suspension for diving.

They can just name the rule "Justice".

Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Fergie We Trust! But sometimes...

"We don't always plan for these things"

Situations you might hear this in:
Just found out you're having a kid (don't worry I'm not).
Just found out you lost your job (still not me).
Just decided to blog at 6am (THAT is me).

Owing to going to sleep late in a slightly bad mood, being woken to some scary sounds at 4:30 this morning that made me peer out into the dark living room (only to realise it was a religious parade out on the streets, complete with drums and firecrackers), and being fully awake at 6am, I'm fairly grumpy...but figured I'd use this time productively and write about a Manchester United game I got to watch (a rare thing these days).

The match itself, which was apparently the 193rd time Manchester United and Liverpool have played, really wasn't all that exciting. But that isn't exactly what I had in mind to talk about.

In case you didn't see it, here's what you missed:
15th minute: Evra crosses to the far post, Jones connects with the header, hits the net...well, the SIDE of the net.

28th minute: Lucas booked. Methinks this was a cynical foul as Park was streaking (yes, Park streaks!) down the right.

36th minute: Adam shoots, the blocked shot falls at the feet of Suarez who twists and turns Jonny Evans, and then hits it straight at De Gea. Best chance so far, probably the only interesting moment of the 1st half...aside from the Manchester United team sheet, we're getting there!

boring boring boring...Ashley Young gets booked...boring boring boring...Liverpool looking the better of 2 rather poor sides...boring boring boring HALF TIME!

60th minute: In the space of about 5 minutes, Evra first goes down like he's been shot in the knee cap. I myself have never been shot in the knee cap, but I've seen it happen in enough movies and Evra could have been in any of them. He did catch a poke from Suarez, but it really wasn't that serious. A few minutes later he then gets booked, for talking too much I think. I start thinking of reasons I dislike the sport...don't worry, it doesn't last long

66th minute: Frustrating period because I'm convinced Adam has dived under Rio's weak attempt at a challenge. Replays show, Rio did catch his little toe, made a meal of it though!

Gerrard standing over it. By the way, I don't like him. This isn't some "Manchester United fan obligated to dislike the captain of Liverpool"...or maybe it is? I would be ok with anyone scoring for Liverpool, except him...

68th minute: Can you guess what happened? Gerrard curls a weak attempt around the right side of the wall and it's a goal. Sorry, let me correct that. Giggs ENSURES that Gerrard curls it around the wall, by practically jumping out of the way of it. Now I can understand, Gerrard hitting one of those ferocious drives from outside the box and a player jumping out of the way. That will knock you out! But this was weak, and really bizarre from Giggs.

70th minute: Rooney and Nani who were both on the bench, finally come on.

78th minute: Chicharito comes on.

which is important because...

81st minute: HE SCORES. Welbeck flicks on from the corner, no Liverpool defender wants a part of it, Hernandez heads in.

The last 10 minutes: All about Liverpool coming close, and De Gea denying them. First Kuyt, good save from close range, then Suarez, tries to lob him. Both fail. United "escape" Anfield with 1 point.

Men of the Match
Manchester United: De Gea. Did really well for himself in his first game at Anfield. Saved United.
Liverpool: Giggs? Just kidding! Suarez for me. You wouldn't know it from my recap, but he fashioned 2 or 3 chances for himself out of nothing, absolutely worked Rio and another defender (Smalling I think?) once or twice, looked most like scoring. That is, until Gerrard actually did score.

FINALLY we get to the point of this post.

Fergie's starting line up for the game.

Fergie said post-match, he opted to have Rooney start from the bench as he was "devastated" by his recent 3 match ban for England. I guess you could look at it one of two ways.
1) STOP BABYING HIM!...self-explanatory really. The team isn't the same without Rooney, he's an adult, he has a job to do, let him do it!
2) Here's a manager who might seem like a real hard character, but he cares about his players, and that's a great thing. That's what I think anyway.

Nani too was on the bench. No emotional reason there, Fergie just knows best.
Again here's the thing. I have no statistics on how United have performed in "questionable selection games", but from my sometimes poor, and sometimes biased memory, there have been more times where I've looked at a United team sheet and thought "what on EARTH is he doing with this team?", and at the end of 90 I'm a believer again.

The midfield surprised me. Young, Fletcher, Jones, Park.
Young, I'm ok with.
Fletcher, I'm surprised Anderson wasn't playing here. Having said that, while Fletch isn't the player he was a year or 2 ago, he's a "derby player" for me, the sort that at least mentally is always up for a big game. A much lesser version of Gary Neville, in midfield, if you will.
Jones was the major surprise. Not because he started, but because of where he played. Fergie could have very easily started Jones instead of Smalling at the back (or better yet, Evans) and stuck Carrick or Ando in the middle.
Park, why do we play him out wide? I could understand it against Barcelona. Keep someone like Alves in check on the wing. Liverpool have no such player on the wing. Keep him in the middle of the...park. Could have been a bit more of a bother to Adam, who was pretty decent, and Lucas, who is usually decent.

Did we look weak and unable to control the midfield? Absolutely. Would that have changed if we went Young-Anderson-Park-Nani? Maybe, but we'll never know.

What we do know is Fergie's final roll of the dice brought a goal within 4 minutes of stepping on the pitch.

Manchester United are managed by one of the greatest managers ever. He's knighted! He's won more trophies than I could count on my hands and feet (only got 4 limbs unlike this guy)!'s ok to question his selection every now and then.

It doesn't make you crazy.

It doesn't make you any less of a United fan.

Just be prepared to be reminded at the end of the game why he's on the touchline, and you're watching from home.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A fashionably late preview

Welcome welcome welcome

They call me the SriLawi Red Devil!...ok, no one actually calls me that, or probably ever will.

I’m finally back, after a hiatus worthy of a Fernando Torres goalscoring drought. I’m making an honest effort to keep my bias down in this piece.

Whether this becomes regular remains to be seen (the blogging and the lack of bias that is).

Also 5 points for anyone who realized that this “preview” is coming after the 1st week of the Champions League. I solemnly swear the first round matches had (almost) no bearing on any of my predictions, otherwise I would have picked Trabzonspor as champions this year.

I think it’s fairly obvious which teams I have / haven’t seen before (can you blame me for not having watched BATE Borisov?), but I tried to make it as balanced as I could.

Without much further Adu, let’s get to it...

Group A

Bayern Munich

How they made it: Only managed a 3rd place finish in the Bundesliga, so they had to go through the playoff round where they beat FC Zürich 3-0.

Ins and outs: Strengthened at the back with new signings Jerome Boateng, Rafinha and Neuer, even if the Bayern fans aren’t keen on the former Schalke man.

I’m not sure what the odds are on teams to win the Champions League this year, but if you’re feeling particularly brave (and don’t want to make that same boring Barcelona pick), go with Bayern. Boateng, Rafinha and Neuer join the likes of Van Buyten, Lahm and Badstuber at the back. They also have more goal scorers in their starting XI than I could imagine on most teams. In their first few games this year, I count NEIN different goalscorers...and the bad jokes begin

Bayern have experience on their side, and facing two newcomers to the tournament in the group stage, should fancy themselves to move on. Last year they were forced out by a good Inter side on away goals, I’m sure they’ll get further this year.

Who to watch: Can I go with all 11? No? If you’re forcing my hand, I’d say Thomas Muller.

Predicted finish: 1st


How they made it: 4th in La Liga. In the playoff round they were 45 minutes away from being knocked by Danish champions Odense. Losing 1-0 away to the Danes, the Yellow Submarine was kept afloat by three 2nd half goals (2 from Rossi, 1 from Marchena), and how were they rewarded? With probably the toughest group.

Ins and outs: They lost winger Santi Cazorla this year, a player who provided plenty of assists the previous season. Time for Borja Valero to step up there, along with captain Marcos Senna.

They haven’t made the Champions League since the 2008-09 season when they lost in the quarter finals to Arsenal. Remember the days when Arsenal were good enough to do that?

Last year they did to well in the Europa League, losing to eventual champions Porto.

Who to watch: ROSSI! Always maintain I wish he’d stayed at United. Could he have challenged for a spot with the likes of Berba and Chicharito? That’s a whole other blog just waiting to be written! He finished 5th in scoring in La Liga last year. Yes I’m well aware that he was 22 goals behind 1st place Ronaldo, an achievement nevertheless.

Fun fact: I got to see Rossi play once. On a very small pitch in NYC. It was part of Steve Nash Foundation’s annual game. If memory serves, Rossi was the most famous (football) player on that field (@scottreutter can confirm this). It’s true, I think the biggest football game I’ve seen live was Malawi – Mozambique…and I think that was a friendly. Let’s move on…

Predicted Finish: 4th

Manchester City

How they made it: BECAUSE THEY PAID THEIR WAY INTO THE COMPETITION! … just kidding. A very commendable 3rd place finish in the Premier League.

Ins and Outs: Their signings have been well publicized. Aguero is obviously the best and most exciting of the lot, but Nasri has seemed to fit in just fine.

This is the Citizens’ first appearance in the competition, because previously they weren’t sitting on an endless supply of cash. Ok, I promise I’ll stop with that.

While this is the club’s debut in this version of the competition, manager Roberto Mancini has been here enough times, never managing to make it past the quarters. The games however are won on the field, and there is where City’s new signings bring in some experience. Silva (with Valencia), Balotelli (Inter), Dzeko (Wolfsburg), Nasri (Marseille and Arsenal), and De Jong (Ajax) have all been here before.

Who to watch: Where to begin? I understand as a Manchester United fan, I’m supposed to hate this team, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t like them, BUT I do admire their play. City have been a very fun team to watch, especially in that first game against Swansea. I’ll go with David Silva though. A true playmaker, and sure his image isn’t hurt by the wealth of class strikers ahead of him.

Predicted Finish: 2nd


How they made it: 3rd in Serie A.

Like Man City, Napoli are making their first appearance in the competition. They’d been up and down the league table in past seasons, but in the last 2 years Walter Mazzarri has taken them to better results.

Who to watch: Marek Hamšík, one of the more senior players in the side having played 140 times for Napoli, and scoring 43 goals in that time, not bad! He’s just the preview however, the real one to watch, Edinson Cavani! I think it’s become fairly fashionable to rate Uruguayan players, and I am all over that bandwagon. He finished 2nd highest goalscorer last year in Serie A (and scored in the first week of the Champions League…but of course this is a preview, so we don’t know that yet). Take a break from reading and check out what El Matador is capable of, even thought it was disallowed.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Group B

Inter Milan

How they made it: Because that’s what Inter does! Also because they finished 2nd in Serie A.

Ins and outs: Eto’o out the door, Forlan in.

With big money Anzhi Makhachkala of Dagestan luring Samuel Eto’o (top scorer in Serie A for Inter with 21, and 8 of their 16 goals in last year’s Champions League) away, Inter looked West to replace him, and got a popular choice in Diego Forlan. Forlan should be an interesting one to keep an eye on, after a few excellent seasons with Athletico Madrid, he’s had a rough time of it the past two seasons and fell out with management and the fans. There’s no doubting his quality, and Inter fans would hope that a change of scenery is what he needs to get back to his best. He’s obviously not short of support there partnering Milito up front as well as Giampaolo “the madman” Pazzini.

They’ll be looking to repeat their triumph of two seasons ago when they won their 3rd champions league, and their 1st in 45 years.

In last year’s edition, Inter finished 2nd in their group, before they went on to beat one German team (Bayern) only to get knocked out by another (Schalke).

Who to watch: Forlan. How do you say “Boom or bust” in Italian anyway?

Predicted finish: 1st

CSKA Moscow

How they made it: 2nd in the Russian Premier League (Российская футбольная премьер-лига)

Two years ago CSKA finished 2nd in their group to ze Red Devils of Manchester. They defeated Sevilla before losing two close contests to Inter, who went on to win the whole damn thing. Ain’t no shame in it!

Can’t say I know much about the club, although they would be my pick in a game played in sub-zero temperatures. They’re also home to that player with the interesting hairdo Vagner Love. After being loaned to Palmeiras and Flamengo in his native Brazil the past two seasons, he’s back with CSKA. Don’t ask me why anyone would switch Brazil for Russia.

Who to watch: Cote d’Ivoire’s (isn’t it much cooler than saying Ivory Coast?) Seydou Doumbia. He’s got quite the strike rate with the club, 20 in 33. If you think that’s good, check out what he did with Swiss club, Young Boys…50 goals, in 64 games! Madness!

Predicted finish: 4th


How they made it: Les Champions de Ligue 1! (google translate it…actually, if you have to translate that, shame on you!)

Ins and Outs: Gervinho moved to Arsenal. Not sure if he’s managed to stay on the pitch for 90 minutes yet though. They also lost Yohan Cabaye, probably a lesser known name, but a big source of assists and goals for the club. Losing these attacking options, Lille have brought in a host of replacements, young and not-so-young. If you recognize any of them, congratulate yourself: Ronny Rodelin, Dimitri Payet, Thomas Régnier, Emil Lyng and Ireneusz Jeleń.

Lille have made the Champions League (I should really start abbreviating this!) once before, in 2005-06. They were in a group with Manchester United and Benfica, but aside from beating Manchester in Paris 1-0, they drew and lost the remainder of their games and that was that.

Who to watch: I have two for you. Moussa Sow, Senagalese striker and top scorer in Ligue 1 with 25 goals last season. Next up we have the main attraction, one of the most talked about young players at the moment, Eden Hazard. At age 20, he won the Ligue 1 player of the year awarded by the National Union of Professional Football Players, and became the youngest player to win the award. I think the smart money is on Hazard being whisked away by a major club next season, just hope it’s one you support.

Predicted finish: 2nd


How they made it: They were given an automatic bid to knock out Inter Milan. Ok that’s not true. They are however the only side in this year’s competition to get a 2nd chance. After being knocked out by Benfica in the 3rd qualifying round, it seemed their European adventure was done, then Fenerbahçe was withdrawn by the Turkish FA pending match fixing investigation, and so Trabzonspor was given a new lease of life.

Now let’s suspend reality. You’re reading a “preview”, but we can fast forward to the 1st round where Trabzonspor beat Inter. It’s not going to be an easy group to get out of, but they certainly are making the best of their 2nd chance.

Who to watch: Some of you might remember the Ivorian defensive midfielder, Didier Zokora, formerly of Tottenham and Sevilla. Trabzonspor also have Halil Altintop, who is probably the lesser famous of the brothers. His twin, Hamit, plays for a small club called Real Madrid. I think the real one to watch though is Róbert Vittek. You should remember him from the World Cup where he scored four goals, only one behind Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller. Italians will certainly remember him, he scored the two goals that knocked them out of the tournament (cue celebrations!). Admittedly he hasn’t been as prolific at club level, scoring only 13 times in his last 62 games with Lille (that’s right, the group opponents) and Ankaragücü.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Group C

Manchester United

How they made it: Champions of Eng-er-land

Ins and outs: No more Paul Scholes (moment of silence)...United have gone some way to addressing that problem. Cleverley and Anderson have looked great in central midfield to start the season, however I for one don’t think it’s the sort of pairing that could challenge Barca for midfield (and universal) supremacy, once again, that’s a whole other topic of discussion. The other big signings are Phil Jones - already looking a solid option both at the back and going forward - David De Gea and Ashley Young. De Gea’s “struggles” have been well documented, overly so I think.

Manchester have consistently been in the semi finals and finals for the last four or five seasons, and with this improved side, I would think they could very well make it that far again.

Who to watch: Wayne Rooney is obviously the star of this side, but I’m going to go with Ashley Young. It seems like every time he gets the ball he’s looking to sprint upfield with it, he’s willing to take defenders on, and as evidenced in the 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal, he has a good eye for goal too.

Predicted finish: 1st (did you really think I’d predict anything different?)


How they made it: 2nd in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. After beating Trabzonspor (3-1 agg) in the 3rd qualifying round, they then went on to beat FC Twente in the playoff round (5-3 agg).

Ins and outs: They’ve poached players from some of the best clubs, Ezequiel Garay (Real Madrid), Nemanja Matic (Chelsea), Capdevilla (Villareal), Nolito (Barca), Bruno Cesar (Corinthians) for a combined 16m Euros.

Who to watch: Another new signing, Alex Witsel from Standard Liege. Yet another Belgian youngster who is much talked about.

Fun fact: Capdevilla was the only player in Spain’s World Cup final starting XI, who didn’t play for Barca or Real.

Predicted finish: 2nd


How they made it: Swiss Super League Champions. Contrary to the name, the league is pretty ordinary.

Ins and outs: Radoslav Kovac from West Ham. They signed South Korean defender, Joo-Ho Park, and are apparently interested in signing Pak Kwang-Ryong who is from…North Korea! A Swiss plan to bring peace to the Korean peninsula? If you were to pick a country in Europe to do it, it would be the Swiss!

Last season they were stuck in a tough group and finished behind Bayern Munich and Roma.

Who to watch: Rising Swiss star Xherden Shaqiri. Also, if you can convince a friend that this his name is a legal word in Scrabble, you’ll be unbeatable.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Otelul Galati

How they made it: Liga 1 Champions (That’s Romania’s top flight). Would have been nice to have a club from Transylvania wouldn’t it? But that’s just my ignorance rising up.

Let’s have a hand for this club though. They won their first league championship this past season, so this is also their first appearance in Europe’s top club competition.

Good thing for them that they earned automatic qualification too. After making it to the UEFA Cup in 1988-89, they promptly lost, and since than have lost in the qualifying rounds 4 times.

Who to watch: Yeah I’m going to cheat here and go with Marius Pena (who scored in their 1st round, 2-1 loss to Basel)

Fun fact: They gave the city of Galați (Romania’s 7th biggest city) it’s 1st league championship. The English equivalent? Bristol? When will Bristol Rovers or Bristol City win the Premier League? Never! Otelul are repping for the small cities out there!

Predicted finish: 4th

Group D

Real Madrid

How they made it: 2nd in Espana

Ins and outs: Fabio Coentrao from Benfica. Great signing there from his performance in the World Cup. Worth 30 million though? Probably not. They also brought in Nuri Sahin from Dortmund and Raphael Varane from Lens

Who could forget their exit last year? Real vs Barca is a dream final…or semi final. Well it could be if not for all the shenanigans and accusations that detract from the football itself.

Who to watch: Another one of those sides where you can really take your pick. Casillas? If you want to see what a truly great goalkeeper is like. Ozil? Perhaps. Ronaldo is the obvious choice though. His last season was truly unbelievable…and yet it was totally overshadowed because he plays in the same league as Messi.

Predicted finish: 1st


How they made it: Long gone are the days when Lyon ran Ligue 1. They haven’t won for the past three seasons, and after finishing 3rd last year, they had to beat Rubin Kazan (4-2 agg) in the playoff round. You remember Rubin Kazan hopefully, for their shock against Barca.

Last season Lyon were beaten by Real Madrid in the round of 16. It was fairly convincing, 4-1 over the two legs, and the French outfit will get their shot at revenge against Real this year…although is that something they really want?

Who to watch: Try Bafetimbi Gomis, Yoann Gourcuff or Lisandro López.

Predicted finish: 2nd


How they made it: Eredivisie Champions. That is the domestic league of the country that FIFA could have you believe is the best side in the World. I’m an Oranje fan, but let’s be honest, they’re 2nd best. I digress once again…

Ins and Outs: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Iceland produces more than flight disrupting natural disasters. Sigthorsson scored 15 times in 32 games last year. But you do have to think, if that’s the biggest name they brought in, they’re a far cry from the Ajax of old.

Last year Ajax were unfortunate enough to probably be paired in the toughest group. They finished ahead of Auxerre, but behind Real Madrid and AC Milan.

Who to watch: Christian Eriksen, an exciting young Danish midfielder. Another one who might not be sticking around his club for much longer, Europe’s best are on the prowl, and Ajax isn’t really one of them anymore.

Predicted finish: 3rd

Dinamo Zagreb

How they made it: Prva HNL (Croatian) Champions…for the sixth straight time. Qualifying round 2, they beat Neftci of Azerbaijan 3-0 on aggregate. Let’s pause here. I can understand why Russia plays in Europe, but why on Earth does Azerbaijan play in Europe?? They’re clearly an Asian nation!


In the 3rd qualifying round they beat Finnish outfit HJK 3-1, before topping another Scandanavian side, Malmo (Sweden) 4-3. Basically they had to go a long way to get here.

The last time they were in the Champions League was 12 seasons ago, and that didn’t end very well (finishing behind Manchester United, Marseille and Strum Graz).

I have a feeling this season goes much the same way.

Who to watch: Ivan Krstanovic. Last season’s top scorer in the league with 19 goals.

Predicted finish: 4th

Group E


How they made it: 2nd in the Premier League

Ins and Outs: Meireles from Liverpool and Mata from Valencia. They also brought in Lukaku, another of the Belgian youngsters, from Anderlecht.

I can’t wait to see Lukaku play, he’s supposed to be very good. I think he topped the Belgian league in scoring…at the age of 16 or 17! Think about that. It’s incredible enough for someone that young to play professional football, let alone score...let alone lead the league in scoring! Also nice to see a player get to play for a club he supports, with his idol (Drogba).

Last year Chelsea lost 3-1 to Manchester United in the quarter finals. With Drogba not quite what he used to be, Lampard, Terry and Essien one year older, and Torres, well, not scoring, I wouldn’t fancy them to make it much further this year.

Who to watch: While Lukaku is hyped, he’s behind the likes of Torres, Drogba, Kalou and Anelka. I’ll go with Juan Mata. How was this not the most talked about transfer to the Premier League this year? Oh that’s right, because Aguero moved too. Still, Mata wasted no time making an impact at his new club, and I think he’ll continue to do so in Europe.

Predicted finish: 2nd (they could very well finish 1st, but I’m trying to make a “surprise” pick here)


How they made it: Finished 3rd in La Liga (which is essentially like winning the league for the rest of the teams in La Liga).

Ins and outs: Pablo Piatti and Victor Ruiz came to the club…no you’re not missing much if you didn’t know this. They lost Mata to Chelsea.

Last season they were knocked out by Schalke in the round of 16.

Who to watch: Canales. The deal they have with Real Madrid is the football equivalent of test driving a car…if the test drive lasted for two years. Basically they have him on loan for two years, with an option to buy him after that. It seemed like a good analogy in my head. Also look out for Roberto Soldado (scored 21 times in 35 games for the club).

Predicted finish: 1st

Bayer Leverkusen

How they made it: Finished 2nd in the Bundesliga

Ins and outs: Andre Schurrle from Mainz

Can anyone remember that Leverkusen were runners up in this competition in 2001-02? I certainly didn’t. Their last Champions League season was in 2004-05 where they were knocked out by Liverpool (round of 16, 6-2 agg).

Who to watch: Stefain Kiesling - 152 appearances for the club, one of those loyal ones. He scores about 1 in 3 (57 goals).

Fun fact: Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze (we’ll get to him later) came on as substitutes for Germany (against Sweden) last year, and became the first players to play for Germany who were born in the reunified Germany. Call me a geek for history, but that’s fascinating!

Predicted finish: 3rd


How they made it: Belgian Pro League Champions. They beat Partizan Belgrade (3-2) in the 3rd qualifying round and then Maccabi Haifa on penalties. So we know they can handle the pressure at the very least.

They haven’t made the Champions League group stage since 2002-03, when they finished bottom of the group.

Their manager Frank Vercauteren left the club for the warmer (and better paying) climes of Abu Dhabi, in mid August. Dutchman Mario Been took over at the end of the month, so would have about 2 weeks before their first Champions League game.

Who to watch: Jelle Vossen, worth 20 league goals last season.

Predicted finish: 4th

Group F


How they made it: They finished 4th in the Premier League and won what was a tough playoff match up against Udinese. Especially considering the injuries, suspensions and recent losses to high profile annoyingly drawn out transfers.

Ins and outs: Gervinho, Arteta, Mertesacker. The latter pair especially I feel could turn Arsenal’s fortunes around a little, but really do little to compensate for the loss of Nasri and Fabregas.

Last year they almost defeated eventual champions Barca, losing 4-3 in the round of 16.

Who to watch: Wilshere will have to take command of the midfield now. Van Persie remains the star of this team, it’s just a question of finding some motivation and momentum for what is looking like a very bleak season by Arsenal standards.

Predicted finish: 2nd. I think this might be the toughest group to predict actually.


How they made it: 2nd in Ligue 1.

Ins and outs: Messers Alou Diarra and Nicolas N’Koulou from Bordeaux and Monaco.

Last year l’OM got knocked out in the round of 16 by Manchester in a close one, 2-1 on aggregate.

Who to watch: Loic Remy. He has 17 goals in 33 games for the club, and he isn’t done yet.

Predicted finish: 3rd


How they made it: Greek Super League Champions. It’s true, there’s still something for some Greeks to celebrate.

Ins and outs: Makoun and Marcano. Both just on loan though. Does it make sense for anyone to stay in Greece, financially?

When they last made the Champions League two seasons ago, they were knocked out in the round of 16 by Bordeaux (3-1).

Who to watch: Serbian striker Marko Pantelic

Fun fact: because I don’t think I’ve done Greece very much service here. If you’ve never watched “My life in ruins”, check it out, more than decent movie. It’s a rom-com though, so if you’re not into that…I should stop here.

Predicted finish: 4th

Borussia Dortmund

How they made it: Bundesliga Champions

Ins and outs: Ivan Perisic. Did this pay off with that beautiful strike against Arsenal? Yes I’m aware that this shouldn’t be included in the preview, but if you want to watch it again, here you go. More than just a one-volley-wonder, Perisic was voted player of the year and was top scorer in the Belgian League last season.

Despite winning the Champions League in 1997, Dortmund haven’t made the competition for almost 10 years now…well, until this season.

Games at Dortmund should be fun to watch. Last year they had the 2nd highest average attendance (behind Barca). They have a section of the stadium called the Yellow Wall, which sounds like a great place to watch a game, and at a cheap price too. Check it out.

Who to watch: Lucas Barrios who’s scored 35 goals in the past two Bundesliga seasons (combined, not in each one…don’t be ridiculous). Better yet, check out Mario Gotze. I’ve heard / read a lot of good things about him, one for the future!

Predicted finish: 1st

Group G


How they made it: Primeira Liga Champions AND Europa League Champions.

This is the side that Andre Villas-Boas left for his one year at Chelsea. I kid, I think he’ll last a few seasons there. You wonder how Porto will fare without him, although I think this is possibly the weakest group this year.

Ins and outs: Two Santos players, Danilo and (don’t call my name, don’t call my name) Alex Sandro.

Who to watch: Steven Defour, or Givanildo Vieira de Souza, who you probably know as HULK. Apparently his nickname stems not just from his build, but from his likeness to Lue Ferrigno.

Predicted finish: 1st

Shaktar Donetsk

How they made it: Champions of the Ukrainian Premier League.

Ins and outs: Here’s a joke, what would you call a Brazilian two-face (the Batman character)? Harvey Dentinho…*crickets*? Well, Dentinho is the big signing here. He scored 52 times in 152 games for Corinthians.

Last season they lost to Barca in the quarter finals. Can’t feel too bad about that.

Who to watch: This midfield trio – Douglas Costa, Jadson and Willian. If none of them are playing, maybe you should just not watch.

Fun Fact: I didn’t expect to have so many of these. Shaktar have won the league 6 times in the last 10 years, but never before that. Why you ask? In 1996 they were bought by Rinat Akhmetov, who Forbes currently values at $16 billion. That’s good for 39th richest in the World. In related news, I rank somewhere around 5 billionth (I’m fairly sure I’m not included in Collier’s Bottom Billion)

Predicted finish: 2nd

Zenit St Petersburg

How they made it: Российская футбольная премьер-лига Champions

They won the UEFA Cup 4 years ago…which is where I realize that’s what this group is all about. In the last four years, the UEFA Cup / Europa League has been won once each by three clubs in this group. If only Athletico Madrid had made it into this group too, we could have had the whole gang.

Ins and outs: Criscito from Genoa

Who to watch: Aleksandr Kerzhakov has scored 13 times in 18 games this season

Predicted finish: 3rd


How they made it: We have a winner for most dramatic qualifier this year. APOEL topped the Cypriot First Division. In their decisive playoff game for the Champions League spot (aftering beating Skenderbeu 6-0, and Slovan Bratislava 2-0), they scored the 3rd and decisive goal (As they would have been knocked out on away goals) three minutes from time, to beat Wisla Krakow 3-2.

Two seasons ago they made the Champions League, only to meet Chelsea, Porto (oooh revenge!) and Athletico Madrid. Talk about a rough draw.

Who to watch: Argentine Esteban Solari and Macedonian Ivan Trickovski. Both scored 11 times. If you want one pick, Trickovski did it in one less game…and has a fun last name.

Predicted finish: 4th

Group H


How they made it: La Liga Champions, defending Champions, best team in the Universe

There really isn’t much to say, is there?

Ins and outs: Fabregas FINALLY made the move to the Nou Camp. Alexis Sanchez, much sought after, was he really going to go anywhere else?

Who to watch: Take your pick really, star studded team. Just watch, and enjoy! If I have to pick one I’m going with Alexis Sanchez. 26 Million Euros earned Barca a goal on his debut. However it looks like he’ll miss a couple of months with an injury.

Predicted finish: 4th, obviously…ok, 1st.

AC Milan

How they made it: Champions of Serie A

Ins and outs: Stephan El Shaarawy from Genoa (who I think have lost all their best players this year), Mexes from Roma and Taiwo from Marseille. Why pick these 3? Because they were all free!

Last season they were knocked out by Tottenham in the round of 16. Can they make it further this year? It’s a quality team, but the core of it seems…old. Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso, Mexes are all in their mid to late 30s. I know I know, Ryan Giggs. I’m just saying, it’s a concern.

Who to watch: Zlatan!

Predicted finish: 2nd

BATE Borisov

How they made it: Belarusian Premier League Champions. They got through Linfield 3-1, Ekranas 3-1 and Sturm Graz 3-1. The best part of this? No, not the identical results. After being held 1-1 by Sturm Graz in Belarus, they won 2-0 away to qualify.

Who to watch: Renan Bressnan and Pavel Nyakhaychyk (I had to check and recheck that name about three times, and I’m still not convinced I got it right), leading goalscorers in the league for the past two seasons.

One last fun fact: Guess what BATE stands for? Borisov works of Automobile and Tractor Electric equipment…

Predicted finish: 4th

Viktoria Plzen

How they made it: Gambrinus Liga Champions (although it’s more fun to say Czech Champions). Thrashed Armenian side Pyunk 9-1, before beating Rosenborg 4-2 and Kobenhaven 5-2. These guys can score!

Who to watch: Daniel Kolar, their leading goalscorer last season in the league with 13

Predicted finish: 3rd

Phew, all done!

Hope you made it through all the way.

You know the drill, comment away. Agree? Disagree?

You can tweet me any thoughts too (@whoasrilawi)

Final thing, thanks to my brother who helped with this. He will probably be the first to read…and comment…aaaany second now.

Right, I’m off to bed.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Red beginnings

I thought about doing a season preview...and put it off.

Then I thought I'd review our first 3 games (yes, back in August)...and I put it off.

I'm fresh off my procrastinating days in college, so give me a break!

And in true college spirit, it's 4am...time to get writing I think! So here's a random collection of thoughts on United's season up to now.

Beating Chelsea...
Starting with the curtain raiser for the season, the Community Shield. A 3-1 victory against Chelsea is always good, regardless of the fixture, and aside from Hilario in goal it was a full strength starting XI from the Blues. United performed really well, and I for one was thrilled to see Hernandez score, albeit in the hilarious fashion he managed it. Berbatov's goal as I remember it was at the other end of the spectrum, a fine finish, and one that foreshadows his play for the season to date.

Low-light(s) of the season...
Lack of diligence with the defense. It all began with Fulham, where we dropped two points that should have been wrapped up with Nani's penalty. Following that Fulham won a corner, and it was one of those moments where you knew what was just about to transpire. Late goal, play the 90 minutes!
If it was bad against Fulham, it was abysmal against Everton. Never should a team allow two injury time goals...ok I take that back, I'm thrilled that Bayern Munich did it in 1999. Still United fans were rightly dismayed at the discipline, or lack thereof, of the United back four. We almost managed it a third time against the red half of Mersey, giving away a two goal lead, only to have Berbatov rescue us.

The Berba-wagon...
Which brings me to the next topic. What redemption for Dimi Berbatov so far this season. He's scored six goals in the league, three of which came in that big game against Liverpool.
I will put my hand up and say I have been a critic of Berbatov, BUT only because I feel that he has underperformed for the kind of money we paid him. Boy is he living up to his price tag so far this year.
His value hasn't always been in the goals he's scored, but rather in his link up play. People rant about his technical ability, and with good reason. He pulls off inch-perfect flicks, back heels and lay offs to tee up his team mates, certainly one for racking up the assists. He's been doing this for his whole spell at United. The difference this season of course is the goals he's scoring in addition to his usual team play. I love it, and so do the rest of United's fans. Everyone on the Berba-wagon, full steam ahead!

Worst signing...
Now if Berba was one criticised for his price tag (or the value we're getting for it), then Bebe is Berba two point oh! 7 million we paid for a player who we hadn't seen, and he might have been Sir Alex's worst signing in that regard. I really do feel for the guy, he's under immense pressure and scrutiny, but he has no place at United as far as I'm concerned. I would love for him to prove me wrong.

Highlight of the season...
Any competition for this one? I think not! A 3-2 win against Liverpool, and the first hat trick for a Red Devil against Liverpool in 64 years! Not only that, it featured two very good headers, and a beautiful bicycle kick. Unlike basketball, where "nothing but net" looks good, I think there's nothing better in football than a shot ringing off the bar and then bouncing across the line.

Now I understand Liverpool is far from the team they used to be, but even in the coming years while they rebuild, this will always be a big rivalry and a tough game for us. Still, 80 minutes of domination were undone by three moments of idiocy...

1) Evans tackle. I like Johnny Evans, but he has a ways to go before we can feel confident with him in our back line. Any striker with Torres speed, let alone his ability, will cause a young'un like Evans huge problem. His tackle was a stone cold penalty.

2) O'Shea's foul on Torres. Just plain lazy, lucky to not get a red. Which of course led to...

3) You know what a bad wall is? one with a hole in it. Well Darren Fletcher did his best imitation of a bad wall, by moving out of the way and allowing Gerrard to net the second of the easiest brace he's likely to get.
This criticism comes with one caveat. Raul Meireles made what I think, was a very clever move, and if it was intentional, I fully condone more teams trying it. The beauty was in the subtlety. As Gerrard was running up, Meireles, who was on the end of the wall, leaned into Fletcher, and then bolted away from him. Fletcher's flinch wasn't to get out of the way of the ball, but he was pulled out of position momentarily, probably thinking that the free kick was being layed off to Meireles. Don't believe me? Look at the replay (about 40 seconds in) and tell me what you think!

Anywho that's it for now. Here's to hoping that the next time I'm writing this, United have rattled off four straight wins against Bolton, Sunderland, West Brom...and the big one, Valencia!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The final stretch: Groups A-D

10 days in, and we're down to the final stretch for half of the teams at this World Cup. So who's sitting pretty? Who's making tentative vacation plans for next week?
Let's take it from the top

Group A: The hosts and la catastrophe...
France and South Africa go into their final group game knowing that a win might see them through, but both know it's unlikely. Both are 4 and 5 goals worse off than 2nd placed Mexico. It's not impossible, but France for example are looking at a 2 goal loss for Mexico, and a 2 goal win against South Africa.
Being knocked out at this stage for both teams is a disappointment for very different reasons. The French hardly looked themselves for a while now, but are still a team that has high expectations placed upon them. They have had the most farcical of implosions that a major team has faced in recent times, and many will be glad to see the back of Domenech, even if France somehow progress from the group. Come Tuesday evening, South Africa will likely have the dubious honour of being the only host nation to get knocked out of a World Cup in the group stages. Hopefully the stadiums will still fill up despite the disappointment of the home fans.
Uruguay haven't conceded a goal in their 2 games so far, and will back themselves to finish top of this group. A draw will do for them, and a loss may still see them through, albeit in the unenviable position of facing South American rivals Argentina in the next round. The Argentines twice defeated Uruguay in qualifying, 2-1 and 1-0.

Group B: Argentina and ?
Argentina aren't guaranteed a 1st place finish in this group just yet, but they can book a place in the next round with a draw or win against Greece. If Argentina beats Greece, 2nd spot is up for grabs in the other game. South Korea hold the advantage over Nigeria, with a draw seeing them through (if Argentina win). Nigeria can feel good about their chances despite some poor showings, they're still very much in the hunt. A win against South Korea and a loss for Greece will see the Super Eagles leap frog into 2nd place, where they could face Uruguay or Mexico.

Group C: The wide open group...
With the way that these teams have been playing, Group C is wide open. It's gone from a group where many predicted an easy path for England and the USA, to all 4 sides holding their destiny in their hands. Algeria did hold England to a draw, however I still can't see them beating the USA. England may be the biggest disappointment of the tournament so far. They were in the top 3 or 4 pre-tournament favourites, but a few injuries and a goalkeeping howler have left them needing to get a result against Slovenia. A draw could see them knocked out if the USA defeats Algeria, so Cappello's men will definitely be looking for a win. If they don't get it, it's likely they won't be Cappello's men any longer.

Group D: ...just group D...
Germany began with a 4-0 drubbing of 10 man Australia, but fell to Serbia in the following game. This blew the group wide open. Australia's terrible goal difference leaves them extremely unlikely to qualify, but they could play spoiler for Serbia. If they can keep all 11 men on the field on Tuesday, I think they can pull off a draw against the Serbs. This would mean that Ghana just has to draw with Germany, and they'll not only progress from the group, but will do so in 1st place, with a likely match against...oh that's right, it's a toss up where anyone is going to finish in group C. A draw is of course going to be tough for Ghana to pull off against Germany, even with striker Miroslav Klose being suspended for the game, after a questionable sending off. That makes 2 questionable, and vital suspensions, in this group. Ghana can lose (by 1 goal) and still progress, if Serbia and Australia draw.

So that's my waffling and rambling for Tuesday and Wednesday's matches.

My predictions for next round's match ups for these groups are...

Uruguay (1st) - South Korea (2nd)
Argentina (1st) - Mexico (2nd)
England (1st) - Ghana (2nd)
Germany (1st) - USA (2nd)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Scoring round 1

Time for the first annual "Nuwan's round by round awards (for the World Cup)". I should come up with a catchy name for it like all those other awards ceremonies, but then again mine lacks a few things that other ceremonies have. Just to name a few, there is no red carpet, there is no host (well, there's me), and none of the nominees are present. In fact, there are no nominees, just winners (and losers).

So, for an awards "ceremony" like no other, let's get it started.

The winners...
The Vuvuzela toting fans. Despite continued protests from various parties, including I'm sure, those earplug less fans standing in front of a Vuvuzela, the plastic fan favourites have received FIFA's blessing, and will remain an integral part of the soundtrack to the 2010 World Cup. Viva Vuvuzela!

The officiating. Not often you see so many well officiated games, particularly if you're used to watching Premier League football and hearing managers whine about every missed foul, that cost them the game. Aside from Tim Cahill's very harsh sending off, I can't think of too many controversial decisions, apart from Raymond Domenech's substitutions, but I digress...

David James. Seems he got his starting job back after poor Rob Green added his name to the ever-growing list of England goalkeepers who have managed to find a way to help their opposition to score. Let's throw in Clint Dempsey as a winner, for "scoring" the easiest World Cup goal he'll ever score.

The Irish. No one is enjoying watching Domenech run France into the ground at this World Cup, as much as the Irish are. Since they're missing out for another 4 years, the next best thing for the natives of the Emerald Isle, is to see the French fail (yes I cheated a little bit and included France's loss to Mexico in the 2nd group game).

Germany. The most convincing first round winners courtesy of 4 different goalscorers. They looked dangerous, against an admittedly weak (and undermanned) Australian side.

Paraguay. Produced the first semi-shock of the tournament. It was only a semi-shock because they only managed a draw against Italy. They looked dangerous at times, but didn't look like they could last 90 minutes against good opposition.

New Zealand. The All Whites scored the tournament's first injury time goal, and got their first ever points in a World Cup.

North Korea. The mystery team to most, even though they qualified just like the other 31 countries, put up a real fight against Brazil. They will certainly have pundits scrambling to amend early predictions.

Switzerland. That's right, Switzerland were winners, against Spain! The defensively minded Swiss somehow held out against Spain's barrage, and stole a fortuitous goal. Some would say they got some help from Sara Carbonero, but that's as ludicrous as Switzerland winning this group...right?

The losers...

France. Yes, France's failure is baffling, until you see who's at their helm...still...somehow. Domenech's substitutions contributed to their poor draw against Uruguay. Taking off Gourcuff topped the list for me, as he looked most dangerous.

Rob Green, Faouzi Chaouchi and Justo Villar. 3 keepers, 3 gaffes. Green fortunately only cost his team a point, but Chaouchi lost the game against Slovenia, and Villar cost Paraguay a major upset against Italy...well, half of the upset

Big names England and Spain. The difference here is Spain looked good, despite losing to Switzerland. England didn't look at all like pre World Cup big dogs. Rooney looked out of form and absent from the game. Ledley King followed Rio Ferdinand onto the England injury list, and with uncertainty over who should start in goal, the vital relationship between the central defenders and the goalkeeper has been disrupted. John Terry is the only original player from that starting trio, and he's not one for good relationships anyway.

Round 2 of the awards coming at you in a week, time to get back to this USA game.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup opener: South Africa - Mexico

1433 days since Italy beat France and we're back in that warm fuzzy place, the World Cup!

Hosts South Africa kicked off the World Cup today against Mexico today, with the hopes of a nation and a continent hanging on Bafana Bafana. Doubts had been raised at various times over South Africa's ability to be ready for the July 11th kick off, but Friday rolled around and everything has gone smoothly so far.

The game started off on a sad note with the absence of Nelson Mandela due to the death of his grand-daughter. The vuvuzelas and cheers rang out through the stadium prior to kick off, but I shudder to think of the din that would have accompanied Madiba's words.

This game was really a tale of 2 halves, and the first five minutes were all Mexico's.
While Mexico saw a lot of the ball for the first half they failed to create too many decent chances. There was a definite contrast between the calmness of the Mexicans and the shaky nervy play of the hosts, especially with the back four. Goalkeeper Khune spilled a low cross early that fell to Giovani dos Santos but his shot was well blocked by captain Aaron Mokoena. He certainly redeemed himself later making a fine save, staying on his feet to deny Guillermo Franco after a delicate chip from Carlos Vela put the Mexican striker through.

France and Vela combined again 5 minutes before the interval, when the young Vela thought he'd scored this tournament's 1st goal. Franco's header from a corner was going wide when Vela nodded it in, but Khune's flying attempt to clear the corner left Vela offside.

South Africa had a few chances, most notably from a couple of fine crosses from Tshabalala down the left, but it was 0-0 going into the break.

The 1st World Cup goal on African soil was appropriately scored by the hosts. A few one touch passes and Tshabalala's run down the left before he drilled a glorious shot across and right into the top corner of the goal. Certainly a goal worthy to kick the tournament off, particularly as Tshabalala is a hometown boy, born in Soweto. Can't imagine what it would have been like to be in that stadium at that moment.

The goal definitely put some wind in South Africa's sails (Vuvuzela power might be a new source of renewable energy). They had the better of the 2nd half and had a few chances to increase their lead, probably the best chance falling to Teko Modise.
However the hosts couldn't capitalise and were made to pay for it. Poor communication in the defense left three of the back four rushing out to catch the Mexicans offside, but as the cross came in from the left, Mokoena stayed static, leaving 3 Mexicans onside. Rafael Marquez took time to bring it down and drill it past Khune from close range. Vuvuzela power went from 1000 decibels to 0 in 2 seconds!

Katlego Mphela, South Africa's in form striker (5 goals in 6 games) almost sent the home crowd into raptures in the penultimate minute when he was put through on goal. He rolled the ball past Perez but was denied by the post, what would be the last chance of the game.

South Africa looked deflated at the final whistle but they could be proud of their performance. I for one hardly think that a South African win would have been against the run of play, in what was definitely an even game.

What looked to be a slow and boring game early on definitely picked up, and was worthy of a World Cup opener. Both teams left themselves with some work to do. South Africa will need a win against Uruguay to ease the pressure on them going into their final game against France. They did themselves and their fans proud, and will hopefully go from strength to strength over the next few games.

30 minutes till the next game, France vs Uruguay.