Tuesday, January 09, 2007

And I'm spent!

In recent months thousands of you have noticed a pretty dramatic drop-off in the number of posts to this site. Well, actually it's more like hundreds. Okay, fine, a dozen or so. Alright, I admit it - no one said a damn thing. Anyway, a steady run of six-day work weeks and a two-week trip to South America can take the blame for the lack of activity. Unfortunately, there appears to be no let-up in sight (but alas, no more trips to Argentina). The good ole days of posting at least a few times every week seem like a long, long time ago. So, despite the fact that I still enjoy being able to indulge my love for soccer and writing on this site, I've decided it's the end of the road for this here blog.

But hey, it was a good run. I started this site at a great time in the history of soccer - in the midst of the best World Cup in recent memory - and in a short time span we saw one of the world's greatest players in decades at his best, as well as Zidane's dramatic fall from grace; we witnessed one of the most shocking scandals in soccer history as Serie A was brought down to its knees; we watched as one of the world's great clubs, Real Madrid, endured one of the most tumultuous times in its storied existence; we saw an upset for the ages in the World Club Cup as Barcelona, one of the best teams of the past ten years, crashed to defeat at the hands of unfancied Internacional from Brazil; and we watched in amazement as the biggest soccer superstar in the world make an unprecedented move to America - not as a 40-year old has-been out for one more payday, but rather a 32-year old who's still got some good games in him looking to do what has never been done and make soccer a big-time sport in America. Here's hoping it works. All in all, it was a brief but exciting run. I'm glad I gave it a shot. And I'm glad you guys made it work.

For now, enjoy the rest of the 2007 season. It should be a good one - for the first time in a long time, we've got a real race on our hands in the Premiership as ManU looks ready to test Chelsea's mettle. In Spain, Barca will have to contend with a challenge from Sevilla, and maybe - if they can ever get it together - a good scare from Real Madrid. Germany has provided us some of the season's most entertaining games so far, in no small part to Werder Bremen's offensive-minded brand of footie and Bayern Munich's star-studded attack. Although Inter looks poised to run away with the Serie A title, there should be plenty of action in Italy as Milan are fighting for their lives and Roma are as entertaining a team as you'll find anywhere. And of course, the Champions League is a wide-open affair: Can Barca repeat despite their near-elimination in the group stage? Will Jose Mourinho lead Chelski past his old buddies in Porto and finally get Abramovich the title that he paid for? Can Lyon finally break through in Europe? Or will Inter or Real or ManU or Bayern surprise us all? It's all set up for a thrilling few months of soccer. I wish I had the time to write about it, but as much as I earn from this here blog (a whole lot of zeros - and I don't mean that in a good way), it doesn't pay the bills (especially not the cable one - watching live soccer from around the world doesn't come cheap). So to all you three or four readers out there, thanks for tuning in, take care, and maybe somewhere down the line you'll see me writing somewhere else. Until next time...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Thank God for England

Forty games in eleven days! Now that's my kind of country. Good to see the Premiership folks have their priorities in order. Some leagues (read: Germany) stop for six weeks. And some leagues step it up and cram a ton of games into a week and a half. And seeing as this is the time of year when most people are home for the holidays, lounging around their living rooms, lapsing into food comas...and in desperate need of some good quality sports entertainment...I'd say they've got the right idea in dear ole En-ga-land. So for all you fine readers out there, wherever you may be, I hope the holidays find you healthy, happy, and somewhere near some good soccer. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tragedy, Controversy, and Inspired Supremacy (just another day in Spain)

On paper, it was a mismatch. And that might be an understatement. But, as they say, that's why they play the games. Except this one was almost not even played. After four of Recreativo Huelva's fans were killed in a car accident as their tour bus headed to Madrid, Recreativo appealed to the Spanish league to call off Wednesday's game against Real. Of course, the league - clearly taking the mindset that there are in fact NOT more important things in life (or death) than soccer - controversially said the game must go on. To their credit, Real, after promising to abide by whatever the federation decided, then said it would donate all of the game's ticket profits to Recreativo in honor of their deceased fans. A classy move, but unfortunately in the midst of all this commotion no one bothered to tell Real's players that, yes, they had one more game to play before their holiday break.

You see, this is a common problem at Real. Last year their 'galactico' squad crashed to a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of...Racing Santander. Live and learn, right? Um, right??? Not in Madrid. See, you can buy all of the talent in the world, but if you can't motivate the boys to play - well, you should've just saved your money. And when Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, and Emerson already have their bags packed - loaded with bathing suits, sun-tan lotion, and the like - all set for a splendid week on the beaches of Rio, it's not easy to see why they might not have had the same motivation as, say,...Recreativo's Sinama Pongolle. Remember him? Yep, that little French kid from Liverpool. It was Sinama who banged in a deserved goal for Recre just a half hour into the game, prompting Recre's grieving players to point skyward in memory of their late 'aficionados'. Talk about motivation. And they were just getting warmed up. Although Real frequently falls behind at home (they wrote the book on 'underestimating opponents') only to wake up and then obliterate their inferior competitors by two or three or four goals, today there would be none of that. Ten minutes into the second stanza, a talented Nigerian chap named Uche pulled a Ronaldinho, taking the ball from the halfway line, running at pace at defenders, blowing past Guti, then Cannavaro (worst game I've ever seen him play), and ripping the ball past a helpless Casillas. A la 'Dinho, Uche was treated to thunderous applause from the Madridista faithful. And even then, two-nil down and getting whistled by their own fans, Real couldn't react. Today was Recre's day. A third goal put the icing on the cake, albeit in a mostly empty Bernabeu. But there were other fans watching, four in particular, and maybe it was some divine intervention that helped Recre pull off this stunning upset. Or maybe it was simply a testament to the importance of motivation. Whatever it was, this game was a mismatch from the start.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Award Tour

As we cruise into the Christmas break in Europe, it seems like a good time to dish out some awards. It's been one heck of a year so far. Here's wishing everyone a happy holidays wherever you are and hoping for an even better year to come!


- Dubbed by some as a bust heading into this season, Saha has not only been good...he's been better than Rooney. And Henry. And Sheva. And Kuyt. And Martins...
- ManU might be one of the biggest clubs in the world, but raise your hand if you had them in first place heading into the holiday break. I see no hands raised.
- Yeah, so maybe he had two injury-riddled seasons in Madrid, but what on earth were Real's directors thinking when they off-loaded him to 'Boro? Woody had a great pre-season, Real desperately needed help at center-back, their defense is already short on size...so they ship Woody off to the Riverside? Muy no inteligente.
- You can make the argument that Sheva has been instrumental in attracting the attention of defenders and freeing up Didier Drogba to score loads of goals, but let's face it - the Blues expected way more from the Ukranian than what they've seen so far.
- After spending years in the First Division, they're now sixth in the Prem. I rest my case.
- They've been racked by injuries (again), but there's way too much talent on Tyneside to be stuck in a relegation battle. Another disappointing year at St. James.


- A month ago I had pencilled David Villa into this slot. Two weeks ago it was Van Nistelrooy. Last week Ronaldinho. A few days ago, Sergio Ramos. Today, it's Guti. If you look at the player of the mid-year award as an MVP-type deal, then I don't know what player is more valuable to their team than Guti. No player in la Liga has suffered more fouls than him. No player on Real has the vision, composure, and . In a league that is home to some great playmakers (Ronaldinho, Aimar, Riquelme, De la Pena), I am not saying that Guti is the best. But I am saying that he is having the best season of his career, having finally been given the reins of the team, and that Real would be nowhere near the top-3 were it not for his amazing talents. Case in point: his sublime pass to Ruud Van Nistelrooy in Saturday's duel with Espanyol.
- As good as they were last year, they're even better this year. I've gushed on this site before about how impressed I am with the boys from Andalucia and something tells me Real & Barca are, too - both Spanish giants have already crashed to defeat at the hands of Juande's squad.
- Ruud has been excellent, but Eidur has come up huge in the absence of Etoo (despite a horror-show display in the game against Real) and 'El Payasito' has been superb in leading Zaragoza into the top-5 in Spain.
- Emerson would have walked away with this award after the season's first month, but he has improved since then. However, his counterpart in midfield continues to disappoint and was even left on the bench in Sunday's game. Yeah, they shouldn't be playing together in the first place, but that's another story.
- The Argentine contingent of Aimar, D'Alessandro, Zapater, Ponzio, and the brothers Milito have been immense in catapulting this club into the top-5. Sure, I predicted this, but most didn't - so, they're my overachiever of the mid-year.
- Valencia almost captured the honor but they avoided this dubious distinction by defeating my overachiever of the mid-year this past weekend, so they're in the clear & we have to give it to another team on the East Coast. After Villareal's semifinal run in last year's Champions League, one would have expected better than a mid-table showing this year.


- Arguably the best player on the best team in the league. Zanetti has rebounded from being left off of Jose Pekerman's World Cup squad by showing all of his versatility, experience, and leadership for the Nerazzurri. Mancini has deployed Zanetti at rightback, leftback, center-mid, left-mid, right-mid and everywhere he's played, 'El Pupi' has impressed.
- The only team that can threaten Inter, Spalletti has helped make Roma the Barca of Italy. No titles to show for it yet, but where else have you seen a striker-less 4-3-3 side play a possession-oriented, pass-you-to-death game that scores loads of goals, is fun as heck to watch, and has one of the best #10s in the world? Grazie mille, Luciano.
- Inter went nuts again this off-season with a flood of high-profile signings. Stop me if you've heard this before. But wait - this year they've actually come good. Vieira has been great. Dacourt solid. Ibrahimovic excellent. But no one's been better than Crespo, a player who's always been one of the best in Italy.
- Ain't it funny how Sheva is a bust at Chelsea? And Oliveira replaces him at Milan and is a bust? And even Rafael Sobis, brought to Betis to replace Oliveira, has been a disappointment, too. Moral of the story: the grass ain't always greener...
- The magic may be wearing off for the boys in pink, since their season has hit some roadblocks in the last few weeks. Still, they've spent most of the season in the top-3 in Italy. Not too shabby.
- No explanation needed here. Just a disastrous year all around for the Rossoneri.


- Easiest award of the bunch. Signed from Porto in the off-season, Diego has been simply magnificent, injecting a dose of Brazilian magic and flair into the cold, hard Bundesliga. Playing as a traditional #10 ahead of Frings & Borowski but behind Klose, the latest Carioca wunderkind has been phenomenal, picking apart defenses and catapulting Bremen to the top spot in the land.
- Look, I know this becoming the Werder Bremen show here, but not only is Schaaf's squad winter champions of the Bundesliga, but they also play the most entertaining, attack-oriented style of any team in the country. Stay classy, Bremen.
- See above. And speaking of good signings, Real should stop wasting their time with Kaka and pluck this gem to replace Guti in a year or two. He could get re-acquainted with his ole buddy Robinho from Santos and guarantee the Bernabeu faithful years of 'jogo bonito'. You listening, Pedja? Fabio? Ramon? Anyone? Bueller?
- Have you heard anything about Prince Podo this year? Me neither.
- I realize that they're a big club and it's no surprise that they're a force to be reckoned with in the Bundlesliga, but tied with Bremen for top spot? Now try to tell me that you saw that coming.
- They've been better in recent weeks and my money would still be on the Bavarians to take the title, but at the moment, that's still just a prediction. Based on what we've seen so far, the evidence on hand says that Bayern, a team that routinely blows away all comers in Germany, should be doing better than barely scraping by to finish the first half in third spot in the league. Hamburg, who qualified for this year's edition of the Champions League on the strength of their top-4 finish last year, have already been bounced from the competition and currently sit next to last with only 13 points thus far. Ugh.


- The big centerback has been the leader of a PSV back-line that's helped the Eindhoven boys vault to the top of the Eredivisie. I know, I know, that's now the second defender that's won the player of the mid-year award, but hey, they've earned it. I just work here.
- Imagine taking over a team on August 18, after having spent all summer preparing to coach a rival club, with pre-season long-gone, having had no say in the creation of the squad, and with no time to get anything done before the season kicks off. Now imagine leading that same team to the top spot in the league and a Champions League quarterfinal date with Chelsea. Now imagine winning the coach of the mid-year award on worldsoccerblogger. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jesualdo Ferreira of Porto!
- When you sell Mahamadou Diarra for around $40 million...and then spend way less than half that to get this array of talent...and you don't miss a beat...still 14 points up in France and cruising along in the Champions League...well, you're the best.
- A member of Portugal's Golden Generation, Rui Costa enjoyed a fantastic career in Serie A with Fiorentina and Milan. When he returned home to Benfica to joing up with the likes of Nuno Gomes, Simao, Miccoli, and Luisao, big things were expected. But he's missed a large chunk of the season due to injury and now they're out of the Champions League and 11 points behind Porto in the domestic competition. Need I go on?
- No, not the band. I'm talking about the club that only three years ago was mired down in the lower divisions of French footie. Today, they're third in the country, just a point out of second place. In a league with big-money clubs like Marseille and PSG and Bordeaux, that's no small feat.
- Henk Ten Cate's boys have flattered to deceive, both in Europe and Holland. Booted out of the Champions League by FC freakin Copenhagen and languishing eight points off the pace in the Eredivisie, Ajax have achieved something this year - they've won this dubious distinction. Feyenoord's ugly first half warrants mentioning, too, as does PSG's 15th-place effort (or lack thereof) in France's Ligue 1.

Friday, December 15, 2006

World Soccer Blogger Top 20

Back with another edition of the Top 20, but first a comment on rankings in general. Let's not mince words here: some of the rankings printed in prominent publications (Sports Illustrated, I'm talking to you) are downright idiotic. I know that in theory it makes sense for 'world' rankings to favor leaders of leagues around the world rather than second, third, and fourth-place teams in the major European leagues, but it's just stupid to rank a team such as Sao Paolo at #6 ahead of Real Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal, Sevilla, etc. Does anyone really think that Sao Paolo is better than all of those teams? Would the writer of those rankings really be willing to bet his own money that Sao Paolo would beat those teams more often than not? Of course not. It's nothing more than a way of trying to give equal time to leagues around the world, but if you're doing that at the expense of accuracy and honesty, then it trivializes the rankings in general. Look at my top 10 - do you see any South American teams? No, you don't, but does that mean that they're not taken into consideration? Hardly. It's just that, while I give credit where it's due to teams such as Sao Paolo and Estudiantes, I'm not about to vault them into my top 10 just because they're doing well in second-tier leagues such as the Brasileirao and the Apertura. Now the counter-argument is the fact that teams from these leagues have beaten the European powers - Boca Juniors' wins over AC Milan and Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup come to mind. But let's be real - those instances tend to be one-offs, games where on that given day...in a stadium far far away...playing for a trophy that the Europeans may or may not care about...anyone can win. And if you still need proof, if teams such as Sao Paolo are so good, how come when their best players (like Cicinho at Real Madrid or Luis Fabiano at Sevilla) move to the bigger European clubs they instantly struggle to get into the squad and more often than not fail to duplicate their success in Latin America? Gee, I dunno.

But enough of that, I'll come down off the ole soapbox now...mainly because I've exceeded my allowance of rhetorical questions, but also because today is not a day when I really want to take the luster off of the achievements of Latin American teams. Of course, I'm talking about Estudiantes de La Plata. Diego Simeone's boys have done the impossible. Trailing almighty Boca by 7 points with three games to play, Estudiantes forced a playoff and then, to everyone's surprise, won the title, defeating los Xeneixes 2-1. It was an epic comeback, one that will live on in the memory for years to come. Just three weeks ago, all the talk in Buenos Aires was about Boca's three-peat. Their new coach Ricardo LaVolpe was promising to shave off his famous 'bigote' (mustache) if (he meant 'when') Boca won it all. If there were any concerns, it was over whether or not LaVolpe or his predecessor Alfio Basile (now coaching the national team) would get credit for the famous three-peat. Well, not so fast, mis amigos. A Boca loss and Estudiantes win cut the margin to four. Then Boca went to Cordoba and lost, but no need to worry because Estudiantes gave up a late equalizer to Gimnasia - the gap was still three, so all Boca needed was a draw in the finale, a home game against Lanus, a team everyone pegged as a hopeless case heading into the inferno of La Bombonera. After Boca went up 1-0 on a penalty by Martin Palermo, the celebrations were on. Shame no one told Lanus. Two second-half goals silenced the home crowd and, when word came that Estudiantes was winning 1-0, shockwaves could be felt all around Argentina. It was on to a playoff game. Even then, no one thought that the team captained by Juan Sebastian Veron could pull it off...especially not after Palermo again put Boca a goal up with an easy finish in the 3rd minute. That scoreline held until the second-half when Estudiantes finally stopped squandering the chances that they'd had all game long. Two goals by the Students and all of a sudden it was 2-1 with 15 minutes to play. Could the underdogs hold on? Damn straight - and just to rub it in, they were never pressured in the final minutes, coming far closer to scoring an insurance goal than giving up an equalizer. And just like that - Estudiantes campeones! The post-game scenes are hard to put into words, but suffice to say that that's why soccer is the best game on earth - fans and players sobbing with joy, unrestrained emotion everywhere you looked, downright disbelief on the faces of even the winning fans much less the losing Boca supporters (who to their credit stayed in the stadium to applaud the Estudiantes players)...it was truly an amazing sight to behold. Now does that mean that Estudiantes will be cracking the top-5 in the rankings anytime soon? Puhleeze, don't be ridiculous.

1. Chelsea - No matter what Fergie says, they're not at their best but they're still right in the thick of it in the Premiership and Champions League. Would be favored against anyone in the world.
2. Barcelona - Nothing like a round-the-world trip to Japan when you're trying to defend your titles in Spain and Europe. Please send all postcards to Sepp Blatter.
3. Olympique Lyon - They just keep rolling along, beating everyone in their path.
4. Inter Milan - Mancini's got all systems go at the San Siro. And there's enough talent there to...(gulp)...make a run at the Champions League title. Nah, who am I kidding? They'll find a way to screw it up.
5. Manchester United - They could be higher and maybe they should be. Right now they can play with anybody, although my money's still on Chelski to steal the title come May.
6. Sevilla - They've lost Reyes, Baptista, Sergio Ramos, Saviola, but they're still second in la Liga and they've beaten both Real and Barca (in the European SuperCup) in the past four months. Don't sleep on the boys from the south.
7. Real Madrid - It's under-20 night at the Bernabeu: Marcelo, left-back from Fluminense - signed. Higuain, striker from River Plate - signed. Gago, midfielder from Boca Juniors, signed. So I'm guessing we can now officially lay to rest that whole 'Zidanes y Pavones' policy now, huh?
8. Arsenal - No Henry. No Gallas. No problem - the Gunners have climbed to third in the Premiership.
9. Roma - Love watching this team, but wow did they get destroyed by Lazio in the latest edition of the Roma derby.
10. Werder Bremen - Just when you think they might be for real, they get shellacked by Barca and bounced out of Europe. But hey, it was fun while it lasted.
11. Bayern Munich - They're only ranked this high because they won their European group that included Inter Milan and they're hanging tough (New Kids-like) in the Bundesliga despite being far far far from their best.
12. Liverpool - Not having a good year, so why do I think they'll still play Barca tight in the Champions League?
13. Porto - Oh, it'll be a special night in the Dragao stadium when they get to welcome back ole buddy Jose Mourinho when the Champions League resumes in February...
14. PSV Eindhoven - Best in the Eredivisie. Now let's see if they keep Alex from moving to Real Madrid. But hey, how many players can one team sign?
15. Sao Paolo - Don't get me wrong - they're good. Just not #6 in the world good.
16. AC Milan - Serious issues for the Rossoneri. When the three major talking points of the season are 1- A courtcase resulting in a massive points penalty for match-fixing, 2- Kaka's possible move to Real, and 3- An unexpected battle with relegation...well, you know it's a bad year for the red half of Milano.
17. Celtic - Cruising along in Scotland. Blah blah blah.
18. Internacional - Play Barca tonight for the World Club Cup title. Thanks for coming guys. Enjoy the trip home.
19. Zaragoza - Fourth in la Liga, with talent like Aimar, Ewerthon, the brothers Milito...don't say I didn't warn you.
20. Estudiantes - Cinderella story.

On the Bubble - Bolton (good time to be a Wanderers fan), Schalke 04 (top-3 in Deutschland), Lille (advanced in Champions, now they get Milan...), Palermo (fallen off the pace in Serie A), Valencia (injuries, in-fighting, and controversies have de-railed the season for los Ches)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

If absence makes the heart grow fonder...

...then all 10 of my readers really really love me right about now. Nothing like a month spent traveling in Argentina and working long hours to put a stop to the ole blog. Sorry bout that, but now we're back. And after a month off, we've got a lot to talk about:

1. If there's a more soccer-mad country than Argentina, I haven't seen it. That place loves the futbol. Heck, they even kill over it. Nuff said. Fortunately yours truly managed to catch a River Plate game down in Mendoza. Aside from the nagging feeling that a riot could start at any time and leave you trampled to the seat-less cement bleachers, it's a helluva way to spend a Sunday afternoon. When the week before saw all visiting fans banned from games...and a game called off beacause angry fans wouldn't let the teams leave their hotels...well, you know you're not exactly attending a figure skating exhibition. Fortunately we lived to tell about it. Oh, and River won 1-0. Goal by Belluschi (remember that name - trust me).

2. Real Madrid crashed to a 2-1 loss at Sevilla over the weekend, confirming two theories: 1 - Sevilla is for real. Like top-5 in Europe for real. 2 - Real is on the right track, despite the scoreline. Capello has them playing well, Guti is healthy again, and Raul & Ronaldo are back scoring loads of goals. The funny thing is that, other than a handful of good Van Nistelrooy outings, Real's success this year has NOT been the result of any of the new players. Cannavaro, Emerson, Reyes, and even Diarra have all been disappointing. While one could've predicted the struggles of the first three (Cannavaro & Emerson, as defensive players, will always look better in a defense-oriented league like Serie A, where they won't be exposed at the back; Reyes has never really lived up to the hype), Diarra looked to be a solid signing, but he's been no better than mediocre. Look for la Liga to come down to Real, Sevilla, and Barca, who are doing one heck of a job overcoming all their injury struggles. What a deep, deep squad.

3. Just weeks after a try-out with Man Utd, Freddy Adu is off to, uh, Salt Lake. The Next Great American Hope never really delivered at DC United, but to be fair that has more to do with the coaching than with any lack of talent. He's young as heck and making a huge jump going from a high school freshman to an MLS professional. To make matters worse, Peter Nowak played him as a right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2. Not exactly where you'd expect a young, raw, small, lightning-fast striker to succeed. Here's hoping it goes better for Adu in Utah. I, for one, think it will.

4. Say what you want about Italy or Spain, but it really doesn't get any better than the Premiership. The fans, the stadia, the players, the coaches... - you just can't beat it. Watching Chelsea-ManU or Chelsea-Arsenal, it's just amazing what a great league that is. The pace of play is electric, the quality is superb, the fans never sit down or stop buzzing, the stadiums are these old-school, close-to-the-action cathedrals, and the coaches are as good as it gets. You tell me what's better in club soccer than a Saturday afternoon watching the Premiership's best go at it.

5. Count me among the legions of American fans that were shocked and disappointed at the US Federation's failure to land Jurgen Klinsmann. After months of talks, it all fell through and we were left with...(drum roll please)...Bob Bradley! Um, right. Look, I know that Bradley is an American, who knows and understands American players, who has had MLS success...but please, he didn't lead a team to the World Cup semis last summer. Nuff said. Bradley is a perfectly decent coach, but somehow I don't see how he's going to take the US team to the next level. And that's the goal, isn't it?

6. Whatever this World Club Cup Championship or whatever it's called...I don't get it. Seems like one more pointless tournament to me, one more way FIFA can make money. And hey, the only downside is that it's more unnecessary fixture in an already-overpacked world soccer schedule. But who cares about exhausting the players? I mean, sign me up for watching a jet-lagged Ronaldinho suit up in his 90th game this year to battle it out against some random Latin American team in some cavernous Japanese stadium. Blah blah blah.

7. Speaking of Ronaldinho, before his trek to the Land of the Rising Sun, he was just starting to get back to his pre-World Cup best. His goal against Villareal was...well, if you haven't seen it, find a way to watch it. It's a dandy. Best of the year so far. And he came up clutch the next week against Werder Bremen in a must-win Champions League affair. Somewhere in South Africa, Carlos Alberto Parreira is slamming his head against a brick wall...

8. Not to jinx them or anything, but this looks like the year for Inter Milan. I know, I know - they won the title last year. But hey, I don't think winning a title in a courtroom is quite the same as winning one on the pitch. This year it's all setting up nicely for them. No one plays a prettier game than Roma (more on them later), but Inter's the one building a nice, solid Serie A lead as we head into the Christmas break. Mancini has settled in on a regular line-up, Crespo and Ibrahimovic have been deadly up front, and all of a sudden, everything Nerazzurri seems to be coming up golden. Need any more proof? Well, AC Milan is stuck in a relegation battle. I rest my case.

9. Ahh yes, Roma. This might not be the ideal time to sing their praises, since they're coming off a 0-3 thrashing in the Rome derby at the hands of arch-rivals Lazio. Whatever, I can't resist. There is nothing more impressive than what clubs like Roma, Sevilla, Lyon, and Arsenal have been doing for the last decade - and that is churning out young talent year after year. And even when they lose that talent, they just bring in another wave of top-notch players. Take a look at their line-up: Mexes, Chivu, Ferrari, De Rossi, Taddei, Mancini...the list goes on. I will never understand why a struggling big club doesn't start throwing boatloads of money at Roma's scouts...and the scouts for Lyon, Sevilla, and Arsenal, too. These clubs clearly have a knack for spotting great youngsters, so why not spend some money on the scouts who can spot them rather than waiting a few years until you've got to spend millions & millions more to get the same player? Look at Arsene Wenger in north London - deprived of the services of Henry and Gallas, Wenger trotted out a line-up featuring the likes of Djourou, Fabregas, Eboue, Senderos, Hleb, Adebayor and watched as they shut down Chelski for 85 minutes, almost stealing a victory in the process. Bottom line: you can't put a price on an eye for talent.

10. Champions League draw this Friday. Should be a dandy. Almost all the big guns made it through to the next round with a pretty good split between 1st and 2nd place finishers (who get drawn against each other), so just sit back, relax, and watch as these heavyweights line up to face one another when the tourney resumes in the New Year. Just imagine what it could be like to watch Lyon-Barca, Chelsea-Real, ManU-Inter, Arsenal-Roma (you know I'd love to see that), Bayern-PSV...the list goes on and on.

11. And just because I was gone, I'll include a little bonus note. Set your TiVOs, set your VCRs (gosh, that is SO 1994), play hookie from class, leave work early...do what you got to do, but whatever you do - plant your ass in front of a TV for tonight's Boca-Estudiantes showdown for the Argentine title. When I left Buenos Aires last month, Boca had a 4-point lead with two to play and the bubbly was all set to go. Now it looks like a little too much time was spent planning celebrations instead of working on the ole game-plan. So tonight, to decide the title of a championship that has been almost ruined by violence and hooligans, Boca has to play Diego Simeone's Estudiantes (captained by Juan Veron - remember him?) for the Apertura title. Don't miss it. (Damn, it's good to be back...)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Man of the Hour

Earlier this week, a reader chimed in with a comment about his dislike for Jose Mourinho. Can't blame him, since Mourinho can be an insufferable jerk half the time. Either way, he's a polarizing figure - ya love him or ya hate him and there's no in-between. I, for one, think that the Portuguese coach is a brilliant tactician, an amazing success-story, and an outspoken, opionated breath of fresh air. Oh, and he's an asshole, too. I'm sure that the man himself wouldn't claim otherwise.

Mourinho's rise to prominence is a stunning one. Not too long ago, the present-day coach of one of the world's biggest and best club teams was nothing more than an assistant to Bobby Robson at Barcelona, a guy employed more for his translating abilities than for any soccer knowledge. Fast forward to today and he's already won domestic titles in Portugal and England and collected European soccer's crown jewel, the Champions League trophy. He has out-coached some of the world's best coaches. He has found a way to motivate a group of 'galactico' players at Chelsea, keeping them hungry for more & more success. He has spent owner Roman Abramovich's millions wisely, investing in an intelligent mix of up & coming youngters and established superstars. He has molded these playaers into a cohesive unit, one with its own identity. No one can doubt this man's soccer IQ. But to do so, to be so successful, he has employed his own unique - borderline unfair - methods. Chelsea's dealings in the transfer market are questionable to say the least; at best, they overspend by such a wide margin that they unnaturally distort the market, hurting a wide variety of clubs; at worst, they are flat-out breaking the rules, employing any means necessary to throw their weight around & acquire any player they damn well please. As a coach, Mourinho consistently motivates his players by making them believe that everyone is out to get them. From the refs to the opposing team's medical staffs, everyone hates Chelsea and wants to knock them off their perch atop the soccer world. Before his players can be lulled into complacency, Mourinho ratchets up the tension of any match by ripping the other team, the other coach, the other fans...whatever it takes. The man is a motivational genius.

Of course, he's also a poisonous element. Any soccer fan knows that there's already enough of that in the sport already. Whatever the situation may be, Mourinho will inflame it, injecting it with all sorts of controversy and ill-will. Half of the time, this is just not fair - almost all of the time, this is just bad for the game. Case in point: this week Mourinho ripped Barcelona's players, claiming that most of them were divers; he questioned the ref, saying that he didn't know if the match could be officiated fairly with so much cheating from the other team; he even criticized the host country, proclaiming that the Spanish league was a country full of divers and cheaters. What would have otherwise been a showcase of two of the world's best teams battling in a crucial match was suddenly a tense, hostile affair. And the match played out just like Mourinho would have planned. His squad, already well on its way to clinching qualification in the next round, stormed out of the gates, matching the intensity of a Barca team that had much more to play for. The match boiled over on numerous occasions, with players constantly at each other's throats and in the referee's face. When Drogba scored an equalizer in injury time, Mourinho showed more excitement than Marcello Lippi at the end of the World Cup final. All of the passion proved contagious, even prompting the normally mild-mannered Frank Rijkaard to confront the ref at the final whistle. Mourinho had done it again.

For all of his motivational tricks and on-field success, Mourinho has done a great deal of damage off the field. Just last month, he claimed that a Reading player intended to hurt Petr Cech by leaving his foot in as he barged in on goal, then blamed Reading for not getting medical care to the injured keeper quickly enough. The situation was already bad enough as it was - Cech had a depressed skull fracture. The Reading player was clearly shaken; it is hard to imagine that he had meant to hurt Cech, even harder to imagine that he ever could have imagined that he would hurt him so badly. And to think that an opposing Premiership club either didn't have adequate medical services or didn't make enough of an effort to aid an injured player is just plain ludicrous. For someone who's had the success and good fortune that he has enjoyed, Mourinho has more ill-will than can be explained in one column, but suffice to say that he is one bitter, bitter man.

What happens in the future is anyone's guess. On the one hand, it's only a matter of time before Mourinho lands himself in some serious trouble. UEFA is looking into the various incidents during the Barca match, but investigations are becoming routine for Chelsea. As for the coach himself, one wonders if he really enjoys what he's doing. Maybe he has to stay bitter to stay motivated, but that can only go on so long. It is hard to imagine that he can keep up at this pace, with so many controversies and problems and incidents, for many more years. With so many feuds brewing, you have to think that before too long it'll all blow up in his face. If he doesn't burn out or get himself into loads of trouble, then you have to think that eventually his act will get old. Sure, all anyone cares about in sports is titles. If you've got talent, then that's what counts. But after that trophy case is good and stocked, fans and executives start to get greedy - eventually, they'll want to see beautiful soccer, likable coaches, classy players, and personable executives. And what will happen to good ole Jose then? Stay tuned...

In the meantime, get used to seeing Mourinho on your tele and in the news. He's everywhere. Of course, outside of the friendly confines of Stamford Bridge, he is well-liked just about nowhere. But hey, since when was sports a popularity contest?