Tagged: Sports

How Will CONCACAF Teams Fare In The 2018 World Cup?

We’re less than a week away from the 2018 World Cup and I figured it’s a good time to take a quick look at the CONCACAF teams involved.

Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama are the regions attendees this go round, down from the quartet of Mexico, Costa Rica, USA and Honduras in 2014. Three of those teams got to the Round of 16 with Costa Rica, surprisingly, making it to the quarterfinals. That’s highly unlikely this time around.

I really can’t say much about Panama. Its their first ever World Cup so all the best to them. Hopefully they do better than Honduras and come away with at least one point. In a group featuring England, Tunisia and Belgium its possible. With Roman Torres at the back they will definitely give a good defensive effort and maybe the wily oldies in attack, Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, can cause some discomfort.

Their reception will be much different from the one Costa Rica receives.

Los Ticos will be treated with respect by their group opponents, Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland. It’s really hard to tell if this team will make it to the Round of 16. A lot of the key players from four years ago return to the fold. The side will look to be as solid defensively as they were in 2014 with Keylor Navas marshaling his troops from between the posts. The trio of Bryan Ruiz, Marco Urena and Joel Campbell up top can cause some damage on the counter and will have to be as efficient as they were four years ago. Should they make it out of their group it will likely be in second place. That would be the end of their run as their opponents would be Germany, the likely Group F winner.

Mexico is the most talented of this trio and, as the ever-present CONCACAF representative, there will be some expectation again.

They should get out of their group behind Germany given their talent but it won’t be easy. Sweden will be tough to break down and South Korea has the attacking weapons to punish them if they aren’t careful defensively. If Juan Carlos Osorio’s rotates as he usually does that will affect his key players. That, along with the teams profligacy in front of goal, might undo them. The likes of Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera have the experience and talent to make a difference when it matters. I still hope to see the Santos brothers play significant time together but that’s unlikely. Their trip, like Costa Rica’s, would end at the Round of 16 stage as they would face Brazil if they advance.

It wouldn’t surprise me if neither Costa Rica or Mexico made it out of the group stages nor would it surprise me if they both did. A bit of a cop-out there I guess. I expect that Mexico will make it and I give Switzerland the edge over Costa Rica. Hopefully Panama does well. It will be an interesting World Cup for CONCACAF teams but I don’t think it will be a particularly lengthy one.

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Mikel John Obi: If Nigeria were organised we’d have won World Cup | David Hytner | Football | The Guardian

Mikel John Obi: If Nigeria were organised we’d have won World Cup | David Hytner | Football | The Guardian

I think I’m starting to get excited for the World Cup. Finally. Nice read here on John Obi Mikel. I definitely have to agree with the title.

The talent that teams like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and the Ivory Coast have produced at various times could certainly have won the World Cup if they didn’t continue to shoot themselves in the foot for various reasons. That Ghana side in 2010 were so close to the semis and Ivory Coast had some tough groups in 2006 and 2010. The likes of Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria had their moments in the past.

I think Nigeria will be the standard-bearers for Africa in this World Cup but it will be interesting to see what Morocco, Senegal, Egypt and Tunisia do.

I’ll do some more World Cup stuff on the CONCACAF sides and the teams I’m cheering for and probably a bigger overall preview right before as well.

Arsenal need Unai Emery pragmatism more than Wenger’s idealism

Arsenal need Unai Emery pragmatism more than Wenger’s idealism

Trust Gab Marcotti to make me start to come to terms with this appointment from Arsenal. I would have been actually excited at the appointment of Mikel Arteta or even Thierry Henry as I wouldn’t have known what to expect. Emery’s history is well-known and not exciting in the least.

I wasn’t expecting a title-challenging squad anytime soon regardless of was appointed, and I doubt we’ll get that with Emery. Can he stabilize the squad and produce a solid team that eventually starts winning the big trophies again? I’m still going to take the wait and see approach on that. His time at Sevilla and Valencia was impressive in parts but his away record, record against bigger teams and Champions League failures stand out.

For now, it’s on to the World Cup.

Barcelona star Lionel Messi manages to stay hidden despite his fame

Barcelona star Lionel Messi manages to stay hidden despite his fame

Excellent piece here on Lionel Messi. That bit about the photo shoot was interesting.

I don’t mind that he’s silent and simply wants to play football, though the author brings up a good point about the difference between him and some of his contemporaries. Does he have to be like Pele’s or Muhammad Ali’s? I don’t think so. Is it weird that all that will be left of Messi when he retires is his highlights? No. As the author states, Messi engages in philanthropy along with many of his peers and I don’t think he should be expected to do more because of his status.

Champions League goals flow freely as art of defending is lost across Europe

Champions League goals flow freely as art of defending is lost across Europe

Some great points throughout, as always, by Michael Cox.

A lot of European clubs, not just the big boys, want to play stylish, attacking football. Or, at least, they want to present the idea that they can. The 1-0 game between Atletico Madrid and Arsenal did seem boring in comparison to the Champions League semis but it was simply a matter of excellent defending by Atletico.  The idea of the club’s brand playing a part in that decision is very interesting and makes even more sense when you compare to international football.

Each continent certainly has stylistic similarities in terms of play but, ultimately, each international teams approaches the game differently. What makes the difference at the club level is that players spend months together learning each others patterns along with being constantly drilled in a specific style by their coach. There is much less time for international teams even during tournaments.

Perhaps that’s another reason the upcoming 2018 World Cup is yet to fully excite. There are sure to be some painful games early on as players, coaches etc get accustomed to each other again after exhausting seasons. Hopefully enough quality shines through and it doesn’t become a case of playing not to lose instead of playing to win.

Annd We’re Back: Quick Thoughts on the Arsenal, the Champions League and the World Cup

It’s been way too long since I did this but I’m hoping to get back into it and eventually get a regular schedule again. There will be a lot of shorter pieces like this or posting various interesting articles like I used to and eventually transition to more of my writing.

 

Arsenal

Watching Arsene Wenger’s last home game was nothing like watching the last game at Highbury. No stakes, no real excitement. Just a meh feeling. A 5-0 win definitely looks good but it had little meaning. There was some decent football on display but none of these players excite me.

Arsenal is definitely a Europa League team now. The new manager, whoever they may be, has a lot of work cut out for them. I wouldn’t mind a squad overhaul but it the moves that are made have to make the Gunners capable of getting back into the Champions League in one shot.

Like all Arsenal fans, or at least I think all, I’m ultimately sad Wenger is gone. I’ve been on the Wenger out side of things for a while now but I’ve always appreciated what he did for Arsenal. The Europa League exit to Atletico Madrid was disappointing even though it was expected. The team’s lack of leadership and real quality was clear.

On to the new era Gunners.

 

Champions League

I’ll keep it short as far as the Champions League final is concerned.

I hope Liverpool wins. If Mohamed Salah doesn’t falter on the big stage, and there’s no reason to believe that since he hasn’t so far, then Liverpool have a good shot. I would say they have an even better chance if they defend well and hit Real Madrid on the counter but that approach is unlikely. What I’m expecting is an open, fast-paced game. It will come down to goalkeeper mistakes/finishing chances. We shall see.

If Real Madrid win then hats off to them. Winning the Champions League three times on the trot in this era would be a superb achievement. Madrid has had an extremely tough run this season and there were very few times that it seemed they were on the ropes in the knockouts.

 

World Cup

There’s a World Cup this year and I don’t know about you but I’m not excited yet. Maybe it’s because of Russia, maybe Qatar or FIFA still trying to restore its reputation after the scandal a few years back. It just doesn’t feel like a World Cup year.

The growing behemoth that is club football also acts as a distraction despite the fact that most of the major leagues in Europe have been a formality for a few months.

I think/hope it will turn out alright as Brazil’s did in the end. No Oranje for me to cheer for but there’s still France and Spain, all the African teams and the federation of Lionel Messi, I mean Argentina. It’s his last chance and I really would like him to win the big one to end all arguments. Except he’ll still have his critics even if he carried Argentina to the final while using a mind-control device to guide Gonzalo Higuain on his key one-on-one opportunities, and organized the defense at the same time.

The sure favorites right now would be Germany, France, Brazil and Spain but there should be a lot of intriguing games. One other factor that will certainly provide entertainment will be the introduction of VAR, as reported here by CNN. 

I’ll probably do some more preview stuff as we get closer.

AC Milan’s Vincenzo Montella under pressure in 2017/18 – The Boot Room

AC Milan’s Vincenzo Montella under pressure in 2017/18 – The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on the pressure on Vincenzo Montella at AC Milan next season.

Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane, Unai Emery and Antonio Conte. What do these managers have in common?
They are among the elite managers who will be under enormous pressure next season for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, there is one man not yet in their category who will be on the hottest seat of them all next season: Vincenzo Montella, the manager of AC Milan, will head into his second season in charge with lots of eyes on him.
AC Milan have had the most eye-catching transfer window so far and there is still over a month to go. The Rossoneri capped of what has been a very decisive summer so far with the best signing of all the big teams.
Their capture of Leonardo Bonnuci brings arguably the world’s best defender to the San Siro and weakens a major title rival, Juventus, in the process. That is not a move many expected from a team that has finished in 10th, 7th and 6th in the last three Serie A seasons. Another big win for the Italian giants came with the extension of  Gianluigi Donnarumma’s contract.
One major reason Montella will be under pressure is the presence of new ownership.
Milan’s former owner, Silvio Berlusconi, and a group spearheaded by Chinese businessman, Li Yonghong, finalized the long-awaited change of ownership. The new owners and their executives have wasted little time in making their mark.
Milan’s CEO, Marco Fassone, and sporting director, Massimo Mirabelli, have adopted an approach that would make many a Football Manager aficionado proud as they have almost assembled a new squad in one window. Bonucci is one of 11 new signings by the club so far this summer.
All this means Montella has plenty of expectations to live up to in the new season.
Milan’s new owners may focus on a return to the Champions League in public. However, privately they will surely be expecting more. The board, the fans and the footballing public will want to see how Milan performs after a summer of significant change. Montella did well with what he had last season, winning the Italian Supercup and leading the team back to Europe, but this is an entirely different challenge.
The former Fiorentina boss will have to integrate his new signings, almost all of whom will play a key role, while ensuring the continued progression of youngsters like Davide Calabria and Manuel Locatelli. The experience of winning silverware last season will help while Bonucci’s leadership and experience will be vital.
Montella will also be tasked with ensuring that arguably the best team he has had in his career plays stylish, winning football in homage to Milan’s history. Whether or not the expectations will be fair is another matter.
The most even-keeled fans will be satisfied with a strong run at silverware in all competitions and a return to the Champions League. Still, it is not unthinkable that this mixture of talent could do better if Montella makes the right decisions.
Juventus will still be favorites as they continue to add talent and retain the league’s best tactician in Massimiliano Allegri. The Old Lady may be preoccupied with Europe this season, though, considering their recent heartbreak on the continent.
The jury is out on the other two major contenders. Napoli played some scintillating football yet fell short in key moments while the boost in productivity from Edin Dzeko could only do so much for Roma. Both sides will feel some measure of confidence after Bonucci’s departure but they have previously failed to capitalize on any moments of weakness from Juventus.
The fact that these teams have the easier Champions League schedule to contend with does work against Milan but the growing list of additions should provide Montella with the depth to compete. There is the possibility of more to come, as well, with the transfer window over a month away from closing.
According to Italian outlet La Repubblica, as referenced by reputable Spanish publications AS and Marca, Atletico Madrid may look at the possibility of loaning Diego Costa to Milan for the first half of the season should they sign him from Chelsea this summer.
With Carlos Bacca likely to leave, as reported by ESPN, the Rossoneri still need a quality striker to lead their resurgence next season. Such a move would heap even more pressure on Montella to get results.
Milan’s season officially begins with a Europa League qualifying tie on July 27. That will give Montella more time to get any kinks out of his side and, hopefully, get the season off to a positive start. The positive performances for some of the new signings in the most recent friendly against Bayern will heighten expectations.
The question of when the two sleeping giants of Italian football, Milan and Inter, would rise again has been constant in the last few seasons. Milan’s actions this summer suggest that time may have come. Montella’s task will be to ensure that his side lives up to the hype created by this summer’s activity.

Why Barcelona fans need not worry about a seemingly slow summer window | The Boot Room

Why Barcelona fans need not worry about a seemingly slow summer window | The Boot Room

My piece for the BootRoom on Barcelona’s summer

There are still almost two months left in the transfer window, but Barcelona need to get a move on. At least, that’s what the Twitterati would have many believing. Some Barcelona fans may agree with that assertion.

Last season was a disappointing one for the Blaugrana,despite the club picking up silverware by winning the Copa del Rey. The club’s defensive frailties were a source of concern time again, along with a lax attitude when facing smaller sides.

A main reason for this was that, in Luis Enrique’s final season in charge, Barcelona failed to look like Barcelona at all. The control of midfield was gone, along with the pressing from the front. Part of that was due to the managers instructions but injuries and loss of form affected various players throughout the season.

There were additions aplenty during the summer of 2016 but only one player, Samuel Umtiti, proved capable of handling the Barcelona cauldron.

With Enrique’s departure common knowledge for the last quarter of the season there was plenty of anticipation surrounding who his replacement would be. Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde was the man chosen in the end, in a solid but somewhat underwhelming move. The 53-year-old is a good coach and one that has proven himself in La Liga, but Barcelona is an entirely different beast compared to Bilbao.

The speed with which the decision was made suggested that Barcelona would be in for a decisive summer.  The renewal of Lionel Messi’s contract also helped calm any worries. Still, Barcelona fans are likely casting envious glances upon seeing the money being spent in the England, by their rivals, Real Madrid, and even in Italy, by AC Milan.

There are plenty reasons for fans of the Blaugrana to stop worrying, though.

Valverde’s appointment means at least one point of contention during Enrique’s tenure, the development of youth prospects, will be addressed. Valverde has no problem trusting young players with talent and one can expect the likes of Sergi Samper and Carles Alena to get a decent amount of chances.

Those a step ahead, like Munir, should also see more regular minutes, along with the now permanently signed Marlon, who performed well in defense at the end of last season. Those players will help with issues of rotation and depth, providing they take their chances if they stay at the club. There were still glaring issues for the new coach to fix, but those have been dealt with in a relatively fuss-free manner.

As reported on Barcelona’s official club website, Gerard Deloufou returned from Everton after four seasons. His addition, along with Munir’s return from loan, helps address the issue of depth up from for the Blaugrana.

There may be some worry about his overall impact given his inconsistency but he has the technical skills one would expect from a former starlet at La Masia, and his form at Milan in the second half of the 2016/17 was full of positive moments.

His return may result in Rafina spending more time in midfield when he returns form injury. Another addition comes in the form of Benfica right-back, Nelson Semedo, whose arrival the club recently confirmed. The Portuguese defender may not be Dani Alves reincarnate, but he and Aleix Vidal provide Valverde options in a problem position.

Semedo’s arrival means Sergi Roberto will spend the majority of time in a more familiar midfield role. That would leave Valverde able to choose between him, Rafina, Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic, Denis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and, sometimes, Arda Turan for the three available midfield berths. Neither depth nor quality should be an issue in midfield for Barcelona.

Barcelona fans will still be hoping for that blockbuster signing, with Marco Verratti the top rumoured target, as reported by the Daily Mail. While his signing would definitely energize the fans, and possibly the squad as well, it may result in a few departures that hurts the squads overall depth.

There’s no guaranteed thing in football and Barcelona have made two solid additions in key areas of need. There are few players available that would make this squad better. Free from the extreme intensity of Enrique, and armed with a fresh approach under Valverde, there is the possibility of success next season.

Other big teams across Europe may be spending to fix multiple issues, but Barcelona’s main concerns lasts season were in the game plan and mental approach in certain matches. The continued adaptation of last season’s additions should make any squad rotation less of a risk next term.

Barcelona will have plenty to prove throughout the 2017/18 campaign, with both players new and old and the coach looking to silence any critics. Money alone won’t help with that. Barcelona’s summer so far may be low-key but it maybe just what is needed to return to the top in Europe.

Why Borussia Dortmund will pose a much greater challenge to Bayern Munich next season | The Boot Room

Why Borussia Dortmund will pose a much greater challenge to Bayern Munich next season | The Boot Room

Another piece for the Boot Room on Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund’s kids have done some growing up this season.

Thomas Tuchel’s side survived a season of ups and downs to finish third in the Bundesliga and booked a place in the German Cup final. Dortmund is on the verge of its first end-of-season hardware since the heady days of the Jurgen Klopp era.

Injuries to key players, poor form at times, a horrendous bus attack have all done their best to make this season a disappointing one. Tuchel’s side has faced its challenges head on and that has to be a positive considering the transition the side endured before the season began. If Dortmund go on to win the cup and get a taste of that winning feeling, one that a few members of the squad already have, then there will be more to come.

The likes of Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele and Julian Weigl still have more to learn but adding a trophy-winning experience to the talent they’ve shown, along with a solid crop of veterans, and expect Bayern will be challenged much more intensely next season. The only negative would the be the likely departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but the funds received from his departure should strengthen the squad further.

Bayern will also be going through their own transition with the departures of Philip Lahm and Xabi Alonso. Younger players like Joshua Kimmich, Renato Sanches and Kingsley Coman have seemingly stalled this season and it will be interesting to see how Carlo Ancelotti reinvents his squad.

The lightning that struck in the form of Red Bull Leipzig this season is unlikely to happen again in the form of another promoted squad while fellow giants Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen will be focused on bouncing back from their own disappointing seasons.

Simply put, Dortmund are the best bet to challenge Bayern and could be in an even better position at the beginning of next season.

One major reason for that is the team’s performance against Bayern in the semi-finals of the German Cup. Tuchel’s side performed impressively in a come from behind victory, in Munich, to book a spot in the German Cup final.

This occurred almost three weeks after a humbling 4-1 loss in the league at the hands of Bayern and the young side stood firm against another possible onslaught.

The job isn’t finished yet, though. Facing Eintracht Frankfurt as the favourites is another mental obstacle to overcome which will hopefully jump-start another period of success. If that occurs, the win against Bayern will have played a major role.

Let’s not forget that this is a side that also had every chance of progressing to the semi-finals of the Champions League this season. Monaco ran out deserved winners but one cannot overlook the impact of the horrendous attack on Dortmund’s team bus hours before the first leg of their quarterfinal tie was initially set to kick off.

The 3-2 loss at home effectively ended the tie but the young side performed bravely and had a decent go in France as well. Tuchel stated, per the club’s official website, that event brought the squad closer together and it was clear in their resilience against Bayern and the previous comeback victory against Borussia Mochengladbach.

Things haven’t been all rosy though as, along with the possible departure of Aubameyang, Dortmund is always at risk of losing key players. This summer does look like the first time in a while that won’t be the case but Dortmund will need to be cautious.

Strong recruitment, even with departures, will certainly help the perception that Dortmund aren’t a selling club. That’s where winning a cup will help. There’s also the possibility of Tuchel leaving, as Blid reports the talented manager isn’t on the best of terms with his bosses and Arsenal are interested in his services.

It has still been a mainly positive season for Dortmund after factors have been considered. Tuchel will likely stay on, for at least another season, given the progress that has been made. Convincing Aubameyang to stay would be huge, but the club can bounce back if he leaves.

Bayern’s struggles this season mean they will be looking to regain their dominance but Dortmund will have no reason to fear them next season. A German Cup victory will prompt further belief from this young squad and should set up an exciting 2017/18 Bundesliga season.

Should Paris Saint-Germain let Unai Emery go this summer, or stay the course? | The Boot Room

Should Paris Saint-Germain let Unai Emery go this summer, or stay the course? | The Boot Room

My piece for the BootRoom on PSG and Unai Emery(written before Monaco clinched the title)

 

It’s difficult to think that this is what Paris Saint-Germain envisioned when they hired Unai Emery.

The former Sevilla man, fresh of a third straight Europa League title, was brought in to replace Laurent Blanc after another failed European campaign. Success on the domestic front would have been expected given the clubs resources and the talent in the squad. Progress in Europe was the main goal. Emery is failing on all accounts as things stand.

PSG are second in the table, three points a Monaco side with a game in hand and only three remaining. This is the same Monaco side that went further in the Champions League knockout stages and announced their domestic intentions by fielding a weakened side in their recent French Cup semi-finals matchup.

A cup double and a return the Champions League is likely but that is a step back from what Blanc achieved in his final season. Had there been signs of progress on the pitch despite the lack of silverware then Emery’s situation may be less precarious he still has work to do in terms of moulding the squad in his image. It was a surprise that he was chosen, despite his success, to lead a club with PSG’s ambition and resources, and the Spaniard has certainly had his ups and downs.

PSG started off the season in Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, while playing in his more direct and energetic style. As noted in this space earlier this season, via the Bleacher Report, a request from senior members of the squad saw the club revert to the 4-3-3 possession based style that the Spaniard preferred.

While Emery’s decision to listen to his players showed a good touch of man-management in a delicate situation, the discussion should have continued from there. A season-long transformation could still have transpired but instead we have seen Emery’s style of display in fits and starts while the manager has been forced to deal with various injuries, changes in form, and so forth.

The major victory in his season, so far, has been the rebirth of Edinson Cavani as the leading man up top. The Uruguayan, no longer in the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has revelled in being the man leading the line again to the tune of 45 goals in 45 games. Emery’s words and training throughout the season surely played a role getting the best from the frontman, but the cynics can argue that any new manager could have achieved similar results with Zlatan gone.

Unfortunately for Emery, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives.

While he also reinvigorated Angel Di Maria and has overseen good performances from youngsters like Presnel Kimpembe, his additions have been a mixed bag. The addition of Julian Draxler in the January transfer window brought about a mid-season surge, but that was to be expected.

Aside from the German, only Thomas Meunier, the least unfancied of his recruits, acquitted himself well. Jese Rodriguez was sent back on loan to Las Palmas in La Liga, Grzegorz Krychowiak has hardly stepped on the pitch and Hatem Ben Arfa’s form has come and gone throughout the campaign.

While it’s not all his fault – one can certainly cannot compare relative novice Patrick Kluivert to former Sevilla director of football, Monchi – where transfers are concerned, the manager certainly had his say in these matters.

The lack of change led to a continued reliance on a player like Thiago Motta, who is much more suitable to Blanc’s system, and casts doubts as to whether Emery really has control of the dressing room. The tactics and decision-making that led to the worst performance of the season, that 6-1 loss to Barcelona, surely wouldn’t have helped.

Various poor results on the domestic front, including losses to fellow title challengers Monaco and Nice, have decreased PSG’s aura of invincibility. That, and the club’s European disappointment, might have key players questioning the club’s ability to reach the top of Europe.

While its unlikely that Cavani or Di Maria will leave, nor the recently arrived Draxler, Marco Veratti has been the subject of fluttering eyelids across Europe for a few seasons now. The Italian midfielder is a fantastic fit for Emery’s system and a major part of the PSG’s project. Convincing him to stay will be a major task in the summer while other potential departures, like Serge Aurier, must be replaced adequately. Whether Emery’s bosses think they can do the same with him is another matter.

While the failure in Europe  certainly has those in charge at PSG questioning their decision it may be hasty to get rid of Emery now. The Spaniard has proven himself in La Liga before and while his Champions League record isn’t the greatest, he is in a different situation now. If he can work together with Kluivert to mold the team in his image this summer then there will be plenty of cause for optimism heading into the 2017/18 season. There won’t be many, if any, big-name managers available for PSG to look at in any case and, as they would’ve seen with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this season, European success does not come overnight.

Emery still has title-winning experience and PSG have a good squad. One trophy has entered the cabinet this season and they are strong favorites for the French Cup as well. The Spaniard was chosen by the PSG hierarchy last summer and, title or not, it makes sense to stay the course. Should that be the case, the manager will know that the hook will be out quickly if there is no progress next season.