29 October 2005

Tottenham 1-1 Arsenal

A tale of two halves.

The first half, Arsenal looked incompetent. There was no rhythm to the attack, and the Gunners kept losing posession in the middle of the field. Their passing was particularly bad; time and again they would send the ball straight to a white shirt, or off the side of the pitch. Meanwhile, Tottenham were able to mount some pressure, and it told in the 17th minute. Michael Carrick fired in a free kick to Ledley King, who was virtually unmarked, and was able to easily head home.

The second half saw a changed Arsenal, in large part due to the departure of the ineffective Mathieu Flamini for Robert Pires. That improved the team immensely, because of the changed personnel, and also because it made for a more natural alignment: Pires took over the right wing, and Cesc Fabregas moved into the middle of the pitch. Arsenal seemed a good sight more organized, and things got even better when Robin van Persie came on for Freddie Ljungberg. The Gunners got the equalizer when Jose Antonio Reyes won a free kick. Bergkamp got the ball on goal, and Paul Robinson was only able to palm it away. It fell to Pires and he fired it home. The remainder of the game saw chances for both sides, but Arsenal looked the closer to scoring.

It's disappointing to admit, but Flamini is not pulling his weight and should not have a regular starting slot. The kid works like crazy, which you always like to see. But he doesn't do anything particularly useful. It may be that he's in need of experience, but his current on the job training isn't working well. Gilberto too is not looking solid. He has a knack for particularly damaging passes. I'm not sure what's behind that, but he's just not where he needs to be.

Arsenal have a bit of a selection problem at the moment, and not a good one. There just isn't the needed depth in the central midfield. We have Gilberto, Fabregas, Flamini, and... who? Aleksander Hleb is out injured. Arsène Wenger has experimented with Pires there, but that didn't work. Alexandre Song isn't nearly ready yet.

If it were up to me, I would be tempted to try Kolo Toure as a holding midfielder. I think he has the needed skills, and he has previous midfield experience. He's got pace and not a bad shot from distance. We would still have Phillipe Senderos and Sol Campbell in central defense, with Pascal Cygan for cover.

But however you slice it, we need more players. It will be interesting to see if Wenger makes any moves in January. I for one would welcome a new face or two.

Player ratings:
Lehmann: 7. Did a fine job, including some key saves. Not responsible for the goal.
Clichy: 8. Looked very very good today. Had some dangerouns runs, including one mazy attack that lacked only some polish on the resulting cross. May leave Wenger wondering how much he could sell Ashley Cole for.
Toure: 6. Overall not bad. Got caught marking an empty zone for the King goal.
Campbell: 6. Fairly solid, with a few rattled passes.
Lauren: 7. Did his usual solid, quality job.
Ljungberg: 6. Always working. Victim of the general malaise in the first half; looked much more threatening in the second.
Flamini: 4. Looks like a nice kid, just seems like the team can't link up when he's around.
Gilberto: 5. What is up with his passing?
Fabregas: 6. Not terribly effective on the right wing. Did much better in the second half, when he could move to the central mid. And, frankly, because he didn't have Flamini to pass to.
Bergkamp: 6. As frustrated as anyone in the first half. Was part of some nice linking play in the second. Gave Robinson a tough shot to deal with on his free kick.
Reyes: 6. Not as effective as usual, but still active. Suffered a bit when moved to the left wing.

Pires: 7 (46' for Flamini). Energetic and motivated as a sub. Got himself stuck in a couple times. Nice take on the goal — a Pires classic.
van Persie: 8 (65' for Ljungberg). Looked very dangerous. Forced two nice saves from Robinson, and a few more blocks from the defenders. Closest Gunner to finding a winning goal.
Cygan: n/a (90' for Reyes). No real time to impose himself.

28 October 2005

Weekend TV Planner: 29-30 October

Some real interesting matches this week. Quite a few dogs, too.

  1. Saturday, 7:00AM CDT: Tottenham v. Arsenal Tottenham: 3rd on 19 pts. Arsenal: 8th on 16 pts. This game is always a huge matchup because of the derby; the teams are mortal enemies. But this year, it has additional import since both teams are so close in standings. Tottenham will want to maintain their excellent start, while Arsenal will be keen to build on last week's win. Both teams are missing key players — Edgar Davids for Spurs and Thierry Henry for the Gunners. The match itself is likely to be cagey and tense, but the atmosphere will be electric. Verdict: Match of the week. (Last week, I got burned for making Arsenal the match of the week. But at least they won! We'll see how things play out this week.

  2. Saturday, 7:00PM CDT: New England v. Metrostars First leg: Metrostars 1-0 New England. The first leg was a tense match in driving rain. The second leg should be equally interesting, with New England testing Tony Meola repeatedly. Verdict: Watch this.

  3. Saturday, 9:00PM CDT: San Jose v. Los Angeles First leg: LA 3-1 San Jose. LA did a great job in the first leg, thanks in large part to Landon Donovan. But San Jose were the best team in MLS in the regular season, and I expect they'll pull themselves back into this one. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  4. Sunday, 3:00PM EST*: Auxerre v. PSG 15 min delay. Auxerre: 7th on 19 pts. Paris Saint-Germain: 2nd on 23 pts. Pretty close position for the two teams. However, I'm not sure this will be a great match. PSG have had difficulty scoring on the road this season, and Auxerre have only given 2 goals at home. But still, it will be all the more interesting for that. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  5. Saturday, 11:15AM CDT: Middlesboro v. Man United Boro: 12th on 12 pts. Man U: 5th on 18 pts. Both teams have been rather inconsistent this year. Boro seem to bring a different team each week, winning 2-1 over Arsenal but losing 2-0 (at home) to Sunderland. Man United have been similar though better; their success seems to wane when Wayne Rooney is out. Rooney will play, but the injuries to Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane leave the midfield a bit thin. It's tough to predict how this one will turn out; it could be thrilling, could be grim. We'll see. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  6. Saturday, 9:00AM CDT: B. Dortmund v. B. M'gladbach Dortmund: 8th on 12 pts. M'gladbach: 5th on 18pts. The two teams are fairly close in standings, though spread a bit on points. Monchengladbach have been a bit porous away from home, so expect Dortmund to score some goals. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  7. Sunday, 1:00PM EST*: Charlton v. Bolton (DELAY) from Saturday. Charlton: 2nd on 19 pts. Bolton: 7th on 17 pts. This is an intriguing matchup due to the relative position of the teams. Both teams have been surprises this season. You would expect at least one of the two to return to reality soon; perhaps this is the week that begins. However, their styles would indicate a cautious match, and a draw is fairly likely. Verdict: Couldn't hurt, but only because of the potential impact to the table.

  8. Saturday, 9:00AM CDT: Liverpool v. West Ham (PPV) Liverpool: 13th on 10 pts. West Ham: 9th on 15 pts. The two teams are close in standings, but miles apart in reaction. Liverpool have been quite disappointing domestically, while West Ham have done well after winning promotion. I suppose this is PPV due to the legions of Liverpool fans, but I can't see much to reccommend it for the neutral. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  9. Saturday, 2:00PM CDT: Chelsea v. Blackburn (DELAY) Chelsea: 1st on 28 pts. Blackburn: 10th on 14 pts. Chelsea's juggernaut has sprung a few minor leaks of late, with the draw to Everton last weekend and the loss to Charlton in the Carling Cup on Wednesday. I can't imagine Chelsea will drop any points on Saturday. (Though I've been wrong before...) Blackburn play a rather dispiriting style of soccer, and Chelsea aren't known for their scintillating play either, so I suspect it won't be a pretty game, whatever the result. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  10. Sunday, 11:00PM EST*: Rosario Central v. River Plate (DELAY) Rosario Central: 10th on 15 pts. River Plate: 11th on 14 pts. The two teams are tightly locked in the middle of the standings. Rosario are giving up almost 2 goals a game at home. That gives the match some potential for interest. But 11PM on a Sunday? Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  11. Sunday, 5:00PM EST*: Treviso v. Siena (DELAY) Treviso: 18th on 5 pts. Siena: 14th on 11 pts. Fox Soccer Channel is not doing Italy any favors by showing these matches. Treviso is north of Venice, while Siena is in Tuscany. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  12. Sunday, 11:00AM EST*: West Brom v. Newcastle (PPV) West Brom: 16th on 8 pts. Newcastle: 11th on 12 pts. Again, the PPV choice is made due to the Newcastle name rather than any inherent interest in the match. A West Brom win would certainly add some interest to the lower half of the table. It wouldn't surprise me if the match turns interesting, but I wouldn't gamble a $20 PPV on it. Verdict: Only if you're bored, AND have free access somewhere.

  13. Sunday, 9:00AM EST*: Lecce v. Messina Lecce: 20th on 4 pts. Messina: 17th on 5 pts. Ugh. Another bottom-table Serie A match. A real case of resistable force meets moveable object. Verdict: Stay away.

*In the US, Daylight Saving Time ends on Sunday. Indiana, where I live, doesn't use DST. So I'm effectively changing time zones.

25 October 2005

Travel Plans

I can't yet believe it.

I'm going to Highbury.

One week from today, I'll board a plane, with an ultimate destination of London. While I'm there, I'll be attending not one, but two matches at Highbury: the Champions League match against Sparta Prague, and the league match against Sunderland. The fantastic folks at Arsenal America put together the trip. I had missed the first announcement by a couple days, but a few more tickets came available and I quickly signed up.

As I mentioned back in August, I've been incredibly eager to travel to an Arsenal match this year. I've never been &mdash never been to England, in fact. So this is a bit of a pilgrimage. I'm quite happy that my first EPL match will be at Highbury, and that I'll have a chance to see the Gunners run out onto the pitch before it's closed down. Heck, there's a lot I'm excited about. Visiting one of the world's great cities doesn't hurt either.

I'll post about it here as events unfold. And hopefully add a couple photos.

This Hoosier is going to Highbury. I can't wait.

23 October 2005

Everton 1-1 Chelsea

Here's what I said Friday:
Sunday, 10:00AM CDT: Everton v. Chelsea (PPV). Wow, I'm really unclear why this would be a PPV match. I would dearly love to see Everton nick a point from the Blues. I would also dearly love to find a $100 bill. I'll get neither. Verdict: Only if you're bored.
Today: Everton 1-1 Chelsea.

I kid you not: I went to the grocery store for a couple things around 11AM today. And found $60 on the floor of the produce section.

Arsenal 1-0 Man City

A quite scrappy win for the Gunners. My apologies for calling this the Match of the Week, it certainly didn't meet that billing. Arsenal held quite a bit of posession through the first half, but weren't able to work many clear chances; the Citeh back four were quite solid. Robert Pires missed a real sitter though around 15', when Thierry Henry's run pulled David James from his line. Henry found Pires 10 yards out with an open goal, but Pires snatched at the shot and put it two yards over the bar. In the second half, Arsenal finally broke through. Kolo Toure stole the ball around the halfway line and surged forward. He found Henry, who was brought down in the box by an onrushing James. It was a clear penalty, and Pires put it away cleanly, sending James the wrong way.

Of course, the incident of the game came a few minutes later. Dennis Bergkamp was brought down in the corner of the box, and a second penalty was awarded. Pires stepped up again, but he and Henry tried to work a trick out of the penalty. The plan was for Pires to pass to the onrushing Henry, but Pires mis-hit the ball, only brushing it with his studs. In the resulting chaos, Mike Riley blew the whistle (for general stupidity, I assume) and awarded a free-kick to Citeh. Arsenal spurned the easy goal, and instead were forced to sweat out the rest of the match. They nearly paid for it later, when Darius Vassell's powerful header found the back of the net, but he was ruled offsides.

It was wrong and stupid, and nearly cost us the three points. Maybe, maybe, I could understand it in a massacre like the 7-0 win over Everton last year. But even then, it's disrespectful. I'm disappointed that Pires would be involved. He's had a season marred by sub-par performances; the first penalty was his first goal all year. I'm even more disappointed by Henry's involvement. One of the reasons I hold so much respect for him is that he's always seemed to be a serious student of the game. Even here you can see that, in a twisted way; it's an attempted recreation of a Cruyff goal from 82. But, to be blunt, he should know better. At least Henry has apologised. As the mathematicians say, necessary, but not sufficient. Let's hope that they both come out with renewed commitment and energy for the next match.

Otherwise, it was certainly an ugly win for the Gunners. They never got into a rhythm, and had unusually few chances. Yet they still got the win, and that's heartening. They've lost too many points in games where they had dozens of chances but couldn't find the net. Sometimes, you need to win ugly. I was also glad to see a pretty good defensive performance. Aside from the one Vassell chance, and a couple half-chances for Kiki Musampa, Citeh weren't able to do much.

So, three points. Next up is a trip to Sunderland on Tuesday for the Carling Cup. It will be interesting to see what team Wenger fields for this match. Following that, it's the big darby at White Hart Lane on Saturday.

Player ratings:
Lehmann: 6. Wasn't really tested. Did get into "crabby Jens" mode a few times, which always has the potential for problems.
Clichy: 7. A fine game for the youngster. Energetic and focused, and he contributed much to the attack as well. With Cole out for a month or more, he'll have a fine chance to show his worth; hopefully he'll continue to have performances like this.
Toure: 8. Did quite well at the back, and provided the spark that resulted in the first penalty. Always working, always upbeat. I like this guy.
Cygan: 7. I have to say, he had a good game. None of his usual lapses in judgement.
Lauren: 7. Completing the good defensive performance. Did his part going forward, too.
Flamini: 5. Active and energetic, but not as involved as he needs to be. Did have a couple good moments, but not enough. I think Flamini is the poster boy for the Arsenal youth movement, in that he really needed another year in the reserves before getting this much first-team time. He's learning on the job at the moment.
Fabregas: 6. Played well for the most part. Like all the Arsenal attack, he was hampered by the high foul rate. Should have done better when one-on-one with James, late in the second half.
Gilberto: 5. His usual quiet game, combined with a few painfully bad passes.
Pires: 5. Showed some moments of involvement, but not enough. Was at his best when fired up by the fouls of Mills et al. Did get the winning goal, which is something.
Bergkamp: 6. Played hard but disappeared at times, another victim of the lack of flow to the game.
Henry: 6. Would be 7 except for the botched penalty. Was crucial to all of Arsenal's best chances, except for the penalty Bergkamp won. Probably not completely match fit yet.

21 October 2005

Weekend TV Planner: 22-23 October

Arsenal are back on the TV. But on delay, ouch! The game is on at 2PM Indianapolis, or 8PM London time. That's five hours late. It's an interesting question: would you rather know what happens right away, or watch it as if it were live? For me, I'll wait and watch it when it's on. So I'd better avoid the internets tomorrow around lunchtime.

Prioritized Weekend Soccer Planner, 22-23 October 2005

  1. Saturday, 2:00PM CDT: Arsenal v. Man City. (DELAY) I think this is one of the better matches of the week, even for the neutral. Despite their road woes, Arsenal still have max points at home. But City can be tough away (2-1-1 so far), and Arsenal are coming off a mid-week Champions League match. Actually I'm surprised this isn't PPV. Verdict: Match of the week.

  2. Saturday, 8:00PM CDT: Colorado v. Dallas. (MLS Playoff) Dallas are the #2 seed with 48 points; Colorado are #3 with 45 points. Two well-matched teams; this could be an enjoyable game. Verdict: Watch this.

  3. Saturday, 9:00AM CDT: Man Utd v. Spurs (PPV) Tottenham have a one-point lead on United, in 2nd and 3rd respectively. With Keane and Giggs out, United will be a bit thin in the midfield, and Spurs will probably look for more than a point. For once, I will agree that United get the PPV slot based on a worthy match, rather than legions of fans who will buy anything. Verdict: Watch this, if you feel like paying for it, or if you can find it in a pub.

  4. Saturday, 6:00PM CDT: MetroStars v. New England. (MLS Playoff) New England are the #1 seed in the east, while New York/New Jersey are the #4, just squeaking into the playoffs. Probably not much of a contest, but then again, it's the playoffs. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  5. Sunday, 2:00PM CDT: St. Etienne v. Marseilles. There's a bit of a logjam in France, with 12 teams (2nd thru 14th) separated by 6 points. St. Etienne and Marseilles are in the thick of it, both on 17 points, in 5th and 7th respectively. Might be a bit of a cagey match though, because of this. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  6. Saturday, 9:00AM CDT: Hertha Berlin v. Mainz. (DELAY), but only by 30 minutes. Hertha are 7th on 14 points; Mainz are 15th on 7 points. But Mainz won last weekend (3-1 over Bayer Leverkusen) and Hertha had a Thursday UEFA Cup match. Might be worthwhile. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  7. Sunday, Noon CDT: Newcastle v. Sunderland. (DELAY) Another match with the potential for ugly. Yet both teams tend to be amusingly ugly rather than simply dour. Might be worth some time. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  8. Saturday, 11:00AM CDT: Portsmouth v. Charlton Are Charlton really the fifth-place team? Yes. Are they going to finish that high? No. Will Portsmouth remain a relegation candidate? Yes. Am I at all interested in this match? No. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  9. Sunday, 8:00AM CDT: Lecce v. Juventus. Lecce are 17th, with 4 points from 7 matches. (And that's good enough to keep you out of the relegation zone?!) Juve are first, with a perfect 21 points. Lecce are home, true, but even so it's hard to see them taking a point. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  10. Saturday, 6:30AM CDT: Blackburn v. Birmingham. Birmingham are now in 18th, while Blackburn are at a lofty 11th. Both teams have been inconsistent lately. I'd guess this will not be an attractive match, but of course, now that I say that, it'll be a barn-burner. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  11. Sunday, 10:00AM CDT: Everton v. Chelsea (PPV). Wow, I'm really unclear why this would be a PPV match. I would dearly love to see Everton nick a point from the Blues. I would also dearly love to find a $100 bill. I'll get neither. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  12. Sunday, 4:00PM CDT: Treviso v. Empoli. (DELAY) Two newly-promoted teams, but like Wigan and Sunderland, they're a study in contrast. Empoli are 12th, with 10 points from 7 matches. Treviso... well, it's 2 points (and only 2 goals) from seven matches. Yeah, that gets them last place. If you're wondering, Treviso is north of Venice, while Empoli is west of Florence. Verdict: Stay away.

20 October 2005

Sparta Prague 0-2 Arsenal

Arsenal are perfect in the Champions League. So far.

Again, there was no hope for seeing this game on ESPN since Man Utd were playing at the same time. So I tracked it via Soccernet and the Bigsoccer Arsenal board. It's immensely frustrating, but that's all forgiven when your team wins 2-0 in an away Champions League match.

The early disappointing news came when Jose Antonio Reyes was subbed out for injury at 15 minutes. Early reports indicate a broken rib; add his name to the rather substantial list of injured Gunners. But we can also (provisionally) take a name off the list, as Thierry Henry was subbed in for Reyes.

And TH went on to score two goals.

The first was a thing of beauty. Kolo Toure hit a long ball on to Henry, who deftly controlled it on the edge of the box, using the sole of his foot, behind his back. Nice. The obvious move was to play it on to the charging Robin van Persie, but instead Henry simply cracked it with the outside of his right boot. It curved into the far side netting, leaving the keeper no chance. A hell of a strike.

The second was not as pretty (long ball from Pires, knocked off the late challenge from the defender to beat the keeper). But both were historic. The first tied, and the second broke, Ian Wright's goalscoring record for Arsenal. It's now official: Thierry Henry is the greatest ever Arsenal goalscorer.

Arsenal are perfect in their group, with nine points from three matches. Ajax are second on four points. Certainly the Gunners are in control of their future, and may be able to rest some key players in later matches. Even better, they should get a favorable seed in the knockout stages.

17 October 2005

West Brom 2-1 Arsenal

Another unhappy day for the Gunners.

As I mentioned previously, I didn't have the opportunity to see the game. I was tracking it online while doing other work. When I saw the goal ("Senderos 17") register, I relaxed a bit. Foolish me. In the end, tracking the game online probably dulled the pain, a bit, since I wasn't agonizing over every pass. But a loss is still a loss, and hurts no matter what.

Obviously it's been a rough patch for the Gunners. Arsenal are currently 8th, on 13 points, 14 behind Chelsea. And the method of this decline has been painful, too. Losing (twice!) to Chelsea brings one kind of pain. Losing to Boro and West Brom, and drawing with West Ham, is another kind of pain. Seeing all this after losing the talsimanic Viera only compounds the misery, through the inevitable 'what-ifs.' Chelsea appear on the path to making a mockery of our "Invincibles" season, only two years gone. And it rankles to be behind such teams as new boys Wigan, dour Bolton, and hated Spurs. Arsenal have never finished lower than 2nd in the league under Arsene Wenger; this year, that feels difficult.

But, let's take a step back. We're 5 points out of 2nd, with 30 games to play. Many of our current difficulties can be traced to a thin squad, international play, injuries, and fresh faces; these problems will sort themselves out over the season. And we're still in good shape for Champions' League play, touch wood, with a maximum start to our group. It's easy to grow accustomed to wins every weekend and perpetual domination of the table. Yet no team has a contractual right to that kind of success, and we must all expect a taste of adversity now and again.

I've truly only been an Arsenal supporter for five years or so. My love was cemented with the Double season of 01/02. In the grand scheme of things, that's nothing. And yet I ask myself, would I ever lose heart? I'm sure there are fans who are even now packing away their Arsenal jerseys. But that's not my way. There's nothing wrong with admitting that your team are disappointing you, and that you'd like to see something different from the players, the manager, the board. (The fans.) But in the end, you have to go into each match hoping for the best, pulling for your boys, and giving what you can to the effort. Otherwise, what's the point?

As for this year, I'm certainly not writing anything off yet. The team will stabilize as the young players get accustomed to their new responsibilites. Chelsea look troublingly good at the moment, but many teams have good runs for 8 or 10 games; keeping that up over 38 is a different thing altogether. I'm not ready to hand them any titles just yet. And it's much too premature to start worrying about Champions League play for 06/07 or other such malarkey. I may feel differently in March; who knows what we'll see. But even if we're out of Europe and mired mid-table, I'll still proudly wear my Redcurrant on Saturdays. Because, up or down, win or lose, I'm for Arsenal.

14 October 2005

Weekend TV Planner: 15-16 October

So... Internationals are done. (Looks like some interesting developments in the World Cup qualifiers; I'll comment on those soon. And other exciting news, for me anyway.) But first, I wanted to provide the weekend US soccer viewing guide. As before, I'll restrict myself to FSC and PPV.

No Arsenal on TV this weekend. I'm crushed. But I wouldn't want to watch West Brom either. Of course, now the match will be fantastic, with 7 goals and a wonderous finish or two. But for once, there's no Man Utd either. Guess it'll be time for the EPL Review then. But for the games you can watch, here you go. Note that I've started flagging games that are delayed broadcasts. It probably doesn't matter too much if you're neutral and just want to watch good soccer (though you might check the score to look for a good game). But if you're a supporter, you have some decisions to make. Avoid the score and watch it as if it were live?

Prioritized Weekend Soccer Planner, 15-16 October 2005

  1. Sunday, 10AM CDT: Manchester City vs. West Ham. (PPV) This is a worthy match. Both Man City and West Ham are having surprisingly good seasons. City are 6th on 14 points, while the Hammers are 9th on 12. And both teams have shown a willingness to go for goals. Should be an entertaining match. Verdict: Match of the Week. At least the PPV people got this one right.

  2. Saturday, 6:45AM CDT: Wigan v. Newcastle. Newcastle have been playing well since Michael Owen came along. If nothing else, he's given them a needed spark of belief. Wigan have been the real surprise so far; the Prem new boys are in 8th, four points ahead of Newcastle in 12th. Should be quite entertaining. Verdict: Watch this.

  3. Sunday, 8AM CDT: Lazio v. Fiorentina. Fiorentina are surprisingly in 3rd, while Lazio are in a disappointing 10th. But only 3 points separate the teams, so there's a lot on the line here. This could be a fun one. Finally, an interesting Serie A match on FSC. Verdict: Watch this.

  4. Saturday, 2PM CDT: Chelsea v. Bolton. (DELAY) Bolton are a suprising 5th. Chelsea... I hear they're playing well this year. Last year, Bolton drew Chelsea 2-2 in this match. Chelsea have several players coming off midweek internationals. It could be the first points dropped for Chelsea. Or it could be another 2-0 win for the Blues. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  5. Sunday, 2PM CDT: River Plate v. Boca Juniors. River Plate, the traditional Argentine power, are 12th in the league. Boca Juniors, the new royalty, lead the table. Could be an interesting match. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  6. Sunday, Noon CDT: Birmingham v. Aston Villa. (DELAY) Such desperation from an early-season match. Birmingham 15th, Villa 16th, both on 6 points. The loser here may end up in the relegation zone. You would expect the visiting team to play desperately for a point, but Villa have given up 8 goals in 4 away matches. I doubt they'll get a shutout. Honestly? I think this could be an ugly match, but a good kind of ugly. Like Plan 9 From Outer Space ugly. And we should see goals. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  7. Saturday, 9PM CDT: Los Angeles v. San Jose. Two of the best teams in MLS, in a season-ending clash. On the other hand, they're both qualified for the playoffs and may choose to rest a few players. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  8. Saturday, 10AM CDT: VfB Stuttgart v. Borussia Mönchengladbach. (30min DELAY) M'gladbach are in 6th, and Stuttgart are 10th. Four points separate the two teams. Could be interesting. Verdict: Couldn't hurt.

  9. Sunday, 4PM CDT: Lyon v. Ajaccio. (DELAY) First-place Lyon take on going-nowhere 15th-place Ajaccio. Hard to get excited for that. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  10. Saturday, 11:15AM CDT: Middlesboro v. Portsmouth. Boro are 10th and Portsmouth 14th. This is a bit deceiving, as Pompey are only a point above the relegation zone. The two teams combined have scored 14 goals in 16 league matches. Ugh. Verdict: Only if you're bored.

  11. Sunday, 10PM CDT: Cagliari v. AC Milan. (DELAY) AC Milan: 2nd. Cagliari: 19th. Um, yeah. Verdict: Only if you're bored. Or like to watch beatings.

  12. Saturday, 9AM CDT: Liverpool v. Blackburn. (PPV) Sure, it's a crap game. Liverpool and Blackburn are both crap at the moment (although Liverpool's meager 7 points is due to two games in hand more than anything). Why the heck is this PPV? Verdict: Save your money. And spend it on something more interesting, like Womens' Erotic Wrestling VIII. I think I need more PPV time.

10 October 2005

World Cup Qualifying Update

A full weekend of games, and we're looking at a much-clarified picture. No surprise, things are shaping up rapidly. After the weekend, we have 14 more nations booking their trips to Germany.

The matches are done and we now now who will represenet Africa: Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Angola, and Tunisia. This is a real turnover, as only Tunisia has previous World Cup experience. Traditional powers such as Cameroon and Nigeria will be watching from home. This should add a bit of spice to Germany 2006. Will one of these teams become media darlings?

Thanks to a 3-0 win over the US, Costa Rica has now qualified, joining United States and Mexico. This will be Costa Rica's third trip to the finals.

Two teams are still fighting for fourth place, and the playoff against the fifth Asian team: Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. T&T has the lead on 10 points, with Guatemala behind at 8. But Guatemala has the easier match, at home to Costa Rica, while Trinidad & Tobago must travel to Azteca to play Mexico. Guatemala has the advantage in a tie, due to a 5-1 beating at home. Guatemala kicks off first, so it should be an entertaining evening.

As I've mentioned before, four teams are already qualified from Asia: Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and South Korea. Two teams are still fighting for fifth: Uzbekistan and Bahrain. The first leg was a 1-1 draw, in Uzbekistan. So everything will hinge on Wednesday's match in Bahrain.

South America (and Oceania)
Four teams are now in: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Fifth place brings a playoff with Australia (the Oceania winner). Three teams are fighting for that place: Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile. Uruguay have a one-point advantage and a home match against Argentina. Colombia visit Paraguay, while Chile are home to Ecuador. Anything could happen here.

and finally:

The picture is much clearer now. Seven teams are assured of qualification:
- Germany
- Ukraine
- Croatia
- England
- Italy
- Netherlands
- Poland
- Portugal

Of course, that leaves seven spots still up for grabs. The complexities are still immense.

Group One: The Netherlands are qualified, while Romania and the Czech Republic are still fighting for second. Romania have a one-point lead but no more games. The Czechs are traveling to Finland. Depending on what happens in Group Eight, the second-place team may qualify automatically.

Group Two: Ukraine is in. The playoff spot is currently held by Turkey with a one-point lead over Denmark and two points over Greece. Turkey travel to Albania; Denmark visit Kazakhstan, and Greece host Georgia. I would expect to see Turkey go through to the playoffs.

Group Three: Portugal are in. The playoff spot will be determined by a head-to-head match between Slovakia and Russia (Slovakia hosts). The two teams are even on 22 points, with a draw between the two. A tie would see Slovakia through, due to goal differential within the group.

Group Four (AKA "the group nobody wants to win"): Israel lead on 18 points, but have no more matches. Switzerland and France have 17 points, with a head-to-head lead for the Swiss. And Ireland are close behind on 16 points. France is home to Cyprus, while Switzerland must travel to Ireland.

Group Five: Italy are qualified. In the fight for the playoff spot, Norway have a three-point lead over Slovenia. However, Slovenia have the home match against Scotland, while Norway travel to Belarus.

Group Six: Poland and England are one-two. They play each other for first place, but the second-place team will still have enough points to avoid playoffs.

Group Seven: Another tight group. Serbia and Montenegro have 18 points. Spain have 17. Bosnia-Herzegovina have 16. Serbia host Bosnia; I can only imagine that the match will be played in near-riot conditions. Meanwhile, Spain will travel to San Marino.

Group Eight: Croatia and Sweden are fighting for first place; with Croatia two points in front. Croatia has enough points to progress automatically, even if they finish second, while Sweden would face a playoff. Croatia travel to Hungary, while Sweden host Iceland.

So... that's the picture. Wednesday should be very interesting. Probably your best bet for tracking the games is on Soccernet, despite their poor interface. You might also check the BBC Scores. I haven't yet used the Yahoo scoreboard, but in general they have the best World Cup site. (Only fitting, as it's the official site of FIFA.) And finally, I recommend Wikipedia as the best source for historical background on teams and previous World Cups.

03 October 2005

World Cup Qualifying: Africa

One region left to cover. Sorry that it's been slow in coming, but at the least I'll finish it before the final games. That's something, right?

Africa sends five nations to the finals. They figure this out through a first round of qualifying matchups, followed by a group stage with five groups. So, very simple: win your group and go to Germany. Each group has six teams, which leaves ten games apiece. They've already played nine, so you'd think that things are almost wrapped up.

You'd be wrong. All five spots are still up for grabs, with 10 teams still alive for the five spots. So let's look, group by group.

Group One is currently led by Togo, at 20 points. They're trailed by Senegal, with 18. In the final games, Senegal is home to Mali, while Togo are away to Congo. A tougher match for Togo, but they have the head-to-head advantage over Senegal. So a draw sees Togo through. Togo have not lost since 4 June 2004, so things look bright for Les Eperviers.

Group Two has Ghana atop the standings at 18 points, chased by Congo DR (Democratic Republic of Congo) and South Africa, both on 15 points. However, South Africa lost both matches with Ghana, so they're not going to qualify. Congo DR is still alive, as both their matches against Ghana were draws. South Africa hosts Congo DR, while Ghana travel to the Cape Verde Islands. Even if Ghana lose, Congo DR need to make up a five-goal deficit. Ghana will prevail.

Group Three comes down to two teams as well: Cameroon lead on 20 points, with Ivory Coast close behind at 19. Cameroon host Egypt, while Ivory Coast visits Sudan. Cameroon have become a fixture at World Cups, so it would be a disappointment if they missed Germany. But this is very much up for grabs. Cameroon started horribly, but have made a late run; they've won their last four matches, including a 3-2 away win at Ivory Coast on 4 September. I would pick the Lions to visit Germany next year.

Group Four is the tightest of the five. Both Angola and Nigeria are on 18 points, while Zimbabwe are trailing at 15. However, Zimbabwe are out, due to head-to-head record and goal differential. So the two powers will duke it out. Angola have the head-to-head advantage, so a win sees them through. They visit Rwanda, while Nigeria host Zimbabwe.

Finally, Group Five is led by Tunisia on 20 points, with Morocco just behind at 19. Guess who they play? Yes, Tunisia will host Morocco in the final group match. The first game between the two was a draw. So, Tunisia go through with a draw, but Morocco will control their own destiny. Tunisia are perfect at home, with a dominating 14-1 goalscoring advantage. So Morocco have their work cut out for them.

So that's the scoop. It's an interesting region, and teams are evenly matched. So expect a few surprises in the last matches. The final games are this weekend (8 and 9 October). So by Sunday afternoon, we'll know the complete story.

02 October 2005

Arsenal 1-0 Birmingham

Three points. Somewhat close in character to Arsenal's 2-0 win over Newcastle back in August. Birmingham began well, but found the game changed at 24' when Kenny Cunningham was rightly sent off for a last-man foul on Freddie Ljungberg. As with the Newcastle game, Arsenal couldn't find the goal until late, and again Robin van Persie was the talisman for the Gunners.

Unlike the Newcastle game, however, Arsenal had loads of opportunities. It was only due to some fantastic work from Birmingham keeper Maik Taylor that Arsenal were denied. He did very well to save fine shots from Ljungberg, Robert Pires, and Jose Antonio Reyes, as well as saving a listless Pires penalty. But he was betrayed at 81' when van Persie took a solid shot from about 25 yards. Taylor had it covered, but the shot was slightly deflected by Stephen Clemence, skipping just behind Taylor and into the goal. Arsenal were a bit lucky with the goal, but that's the nature of the game. With 13 shots on goal, the Gunners were bound to have some luck eventually, despite Taylor's fine efforts. Knock on the door long enough, and someone will let you in.

Here's what I like about this game. I like to see Arsenal withstand some early pressure. I like the fact that our defense were calm and organized for most of the match. I like that they kept bringing the pressure, and that they took several different solid chances. And I like that they got a scrappy win, despite some fine goalkeeping and mounting frustration. We needed three from the game, and we got it. Well done.

Player Ratings:
Lehmann: 6. Did a generally fine job, but had a few risky moments.
Cole: 7. Did a good job on the dangerous Pennant, and was very involved in the attack.
Toure: 7. Made several fine last-ditch tackles.
Campbell: 7. Another good game for Sol. Had a couple unfortunate touches that nearly cost the Gunners.
Lauren: 6. Less involved in normal.
Pires: 6. A good game in general, with a fine shot that Taylor did well to save. The penalty was very disappointing however.
Fabregas: 7. Did his usual Cesc thing. Had some fine moments in the attack.
Gilberto: 6. Did his usual Gilberto thing, just less of it.
Hleb: 6. Very active as usual, but slightly less involved. Still hasn't quite meshed with the team however.
Ljungberg: 7. Did well playing out of position in the striker role. Great burst of speed to force the Cunningham foul.
Reyes: 8. At this point, I wonder what sins he has committed, because it's surely only the direct intervention of the Almighty that is keeping him from scoring.

Bergkamp: 6 (61' for Hleb). Did fine, but his passes just didn't find the right people this time.
van Persie: 7 (70' for Pires). Was a bit lucky to cause the goal, but that's why you take those shots.
Flamini: 5 (87' for Ljungberg). Little time to make an impression.

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