20 January 2006

African Cup of Nations Underway

The inaugural match of the African Cup of Nations tournament was played today and the host country Egypt thumped Libya by a scoreline of 3-0. Unlike most other confederations, the CAF holds a tournament every 2 years instead of every 4 years, and the timing couldn't be worse as far as the major European leagues are concerned. Premiership sides will have to make do without 25 players. All told about 200 European-based players will put country before club for the next 3 weeks.

Obviously, the rise of Africa as a producer of soccer talent, and the recent parity of the teams (traditional powers Nigeria and Cameroon failed to qualify for the summer's World Cup), make this a very intriguing tournament. Unfortunately, those of us in the U.S. will have to follow things from afar as the games will not be televised here.

15 January 2006

Indianapolis 18-21 Pittsburgh

My hometown team has wounded me badly. I'm displacing my disappointment by thinking how I would describe it in soccer terms.

First, it's key to realize what the American football playoffs mean. Of course, it's an elimination tournament, like the FA Cup. But there is no other prize to be won, no separate league championship. The Colts are officially the AFC South champions, but that means about as much as winning the Community Shield, and maybe less. So, losing this game is equivalent to losing the league and crashing out of the cup... in the same match.

Indianapolis had been the dominant team all year, and were playing at home. They had already crushed Pittsburgh earlier in the season. But Pittsburgh had played quite well of late, winning their last 5, while Indy had rested key players in late-season games and had dropped 2 of 3 as a result..

So, how did it go... if it were a soccer match? Pittsburgh came out playing hard. Their attack was flawless, and they were able to score two early goals. Randel-El hammered home a rebound at 8', and Miller converted an easy far-post chip at 16'. On the other side of the ball, Indianapolis couldn't even retain posession; their attack was constantly disrupted by the aggressive tackling of Pittsburgh. Their world-class midfielder, Manning, was constantly hammered and had no time to run the offense. Indy were able to sustain a bit more pressure near the end of the half, but the Pittsburgh back line remained strong and Indy scored nothing of consequence. 2-0 at the half.

Indianapolis still couldn't muster much of an attack after the break, though at least their defense stiffened a bit. Pittsburgh, knowing they had a solid lead away from home, relied on their normal ball-control offense and kept Indianapolis from the attack. Their sustained pressure kept Indy off-balance, and when Indy turned over the ball deep in their own end, Pittsburgh were able to score at 65', on a powerful header by the huge veteran striker Bettis. 3-0 to Pittsburgh.

With the lead, Pittsburgh elected to play a more conservative game, and it nearly cost them. They took off a forward for a defender; Indy were able to restore their passing game, and Manning hit a beautiful long pass from the center circle to spring Clark, for their first goal at 68'. 3-1. Pittsburgh returned to their ball-control game and were eating up tons of time. But Indy regained posession, and again were able to quickly advance into the goal box. The striker, James, got into the box and put away a header. He was clearly offside, and the flag was up, but the ref inexplicably overruled the linesman. However it happened, at 84', Indy were back to 3-2 and knew they had a chance.

Indianapolis tried a last desperate attack, but left themselves exposed. Deep into injury time, Pittsburgh were able to counter, and Bettis -- possibly in his last game -- took over and was bearing down on goal. But with only the keeper to beat, he slipped! Indy were able to recover quickly. With only seconds left, they streamed into the box. The cross was fired in -- the defender handled! -- and a penalty was given. One kick to send it into extra time.

The penalty-taker, Vanderjagt, has been the most accurate ever in the history of the game. He lined it up... took a calm run-up... and put the ball two yards wide of the net. Replays afterwards caught first the losing coach, and then the winning coach, mouthing the same words: "He missed it." "He missed it!"

The home fans left, dejected. There were few away supporters -- even the touts had refused to sell to Pittsburgh fans -- but those who did find tickets partied long into the night. And I turned off my TV and went to think about soccer instead.

14 January 2006

Arsenal - Middlesboro

The game's been over for three hours, but I've been good and avoided the online results. So, I can watch the delayed broadcast without any contamination.

No point in liveblogging it, as such, but I'll write down some thoughts as we go through the game. Less play-by-play and more general thinking, as it was.

5': This is my first look at Johan Djourou. So far he's not been challenged too much, though he does pick up a foul for a push on Yakubu. Looks more like backing in to me, but whatever.

8': Djourou tries a back-pass but leaves it short -- actually behind Yakubu. But Senderos cleans it up.

By the way, what's with Freddie's beard? Maybe he's not going to shave until he gets a goal.

12': A second Theirry Henry free kick comes very close. His first wasn't great but he's unlikely to stay away from goal for long. A couple minutes later, Reyes has a solid look and pulls it just wide too. Could be a long day for Boro if this keeps up -- but Arsenal have to start converting their chances into goals.

15': Henry loses the ball but throws himself into a beautiful tackle to win it back. His cross is just knocked away, but then Reyes goes into a hard tackle himself. He gets a foul for his trouble, but it was a decent tackle. Even without goals yet, I love seeing this kind of fight from the boys.

19': More poor passing from Gilberto. I really can't understand his habit this year of making such horrid passes. Sometimes it's impossible to see what he's even trying to do. Conventional wisdom is that he's not pressed enough for time, and is too complacent. That might explain some lack of effort, but I can't see how that results in the poor passing and decision-making. Maybe he needs glasses?

20': Goal! Hell of a strike from Henry. The move started with an incisive pass from Cesc to pick out Ljungberg's run to the end line; Freddie had all day to pick out Henry, and did it perfectly.

22': Goal! Senderos this time. Reyes took a beautiful corner; Senderos had a wide-open header at the far post, and put it away with authority. He looks amazingly authoritative, especially for such a young kid. I wouldn't be surprised to see him wearing the armband down the road.

It's hard to see Boro coming back from 2-0, certainly not if they continue to play like this. Their back line is amazingly inexperienced, but it's their midfield that's letting them down at the moment.

29': Goal! Reyes hits a perfectly weighted pass that springs Henry free. The keeper comes far out to try to snuff the danger, but Henry isn't even bothered; it's a slow roller but is only ever going into the goal. It's starting to look like this will be a game worth keeping on the Tivo through the offseason.

31': Cygan goes down with a hamstring and Ashley Cole gets up to warm up. It's good to hear the crowd greet him so positively. Despite all the rumors of his departure, he's still with the Gunners. The fan response might have been different had Gael Clichy been healthy the whole time... but he wasn't, and it'll be nice to have a real left back again. Cole comes on at 35' and the crowd gives a solid welcome home. Let's hope he's ready.

45': Goal! Almost two minutes into injury time, Robert Pires gets it all on his own; he's given too much time in the box and perfectly picks his spot. 4-0 to the Arsenal at the half.

OK, second half is under way. More goals for the Gunners? We'll see.

54': Free kick for the Gunners, and Henry's ball is headed home by Pires... but the flag is up. Replays show it's the wrong decision. Close free kicks like this make offsides extremely difficult to judge, since everybody is packed into the box anyway. Wish I could think of a rule change or clarification that would help.

59': Goal! Finally a free-kick from Henry works. This one is virtually identical to the last, except that it's Gilberto who gets up to head it home. It would be easy to fault the Boro back line for their poor defense of set pieces, but Arsenal have been given far too many chances.

67': Goal! Thierry Henry gets his 150th league goal. Reyes hits another amazing thirty-yard pass to spring Henry, and with an unopposed run at goal (well behind the defense) the outcome was never in doubt. That's Henry's hat-trick and 6-0 to the Arsenal. Wenger pulls off Gilberto and Pires in favor of Flamini and Hleb; it'll be interesting to see if one of them is able to get in on the action.

Now the focus turns to the Arsenal defense. They haven't given up a league goal since the Chelsea game and it would be sad to see it end in this game, with a six-goal lead already.

72': Henry is running dangerously through the middle of the defense, and Doriva gives a hard pull to the back of his jersey. Doriva's already carrying a yellow... and gets the second. So now Boro have 20 minutes to play with ten men. I'm not sure if the second yellow was for the pull or for the disset that followed, but he certainly can't expect anything else.

74': Another rampant Arsenal attack and this time we get to see Hleb getting involved. It's not at all useful; he works hard and has a nice touch but he's been horrible at getting into the flow of the Arsenal attack. If anything, it's getting worse rather than better.

78': Boro come close to getting that goal. Riggot hits the corssbar on an open look, though it's a difficult over-the-shoulder ball; the follow-up from Yakubu is swatted away by Lehmann. A minute later, Arsenal have a surging counterattack that nearly pays. Arsenal on the counter are at their best, and it's breathtaking to watch when they're all on the same page.

84': Goal! Hleb gets his first. Henry once more runs amok on the right side; his pass is actually misguided to Reyes in a crowd in the box, but it springs out and Hleb has an open look at the net. Reyes is left in a heap; hopefully it's nothing serious. He's back on the field, anyway. 7-0... wow. Now, the only question is whether they'll beat last year's Everton score.

91': A free kick for Arsenal's last chance... Henry takes, but it's into the wall. Reyes tries to hit it on the volley but doesn't let it come down enough. On the resulting goal kick, the whistle blows.

So that's it -- 7-0 for the Arsenal. Fun to see, and a perfect start to Arsenal's key league run. Definitely a game worth saving.

11 January 2006

Long Time, No Post

Hullo all. Sorry for the long gap in posts. I hadn't planned to take a break, but once I started, it seemed like the thing to do. My apologies if you were coming around looking for new and interesting material.

So what's going on? Of course I missed the busiest time of year, including Boxing Day and all the subsequent festivities. There's been a lot of good soccer to watch, and I have; I just haven't written about it.

Arsenal have had a real up-and-down time since I've last posted. Let's see, last post was (gulp) 20 December. Since then, they've been 4-2-1 in all competitions. Carling Cup games have bookended my break. On 21 December, Arsenal snuck through at Doncaster, winning on penalties after ending extra time at 2-2, thanks to a last-ditch Gilberto goal. The last minutes weren't as kind to Arsenal yesterday, as they lost 1-0 to Wigan, at the JJB, in the first leg of the semifinals. It's a testament to Wigan's league success that they were able to field a first-choice lineup; Arsenal were more circumspect but still fielded seven regulars. The Gunners still have the home leg to look forward to, and I suspect they'll be able to do the job.

The FA Cup third round saw the Gunners forge a nice 2-1 win over Cardiff. Arsenal took a 2-0 lead on two Robert Pires goals, and then gave one back to Cameron Jerome at 87'. That made the end a bit more nervy than it should have been, but I can't complain -- it could have been worse. (Cue Nelson Muntz voice: "Ha ha!")

The league has been mostly good to Arsenal over the past few weeks. The loss to Chelsea was followed by a 0-1 win away at Charlton on Boxing Day, a 4-0 drubbing of Portsmouth, a grim 0-0 draw at Aston Villa, and a somewhat more energetic 0-0 home draw with Manchester United.

The pessimistic Arsenal fan would point to the two draws and sigh. But I'll look at things a bit more positively. As I've said before, Arsenal are going to have to grind out the points this season. It's not always going to be pretty, and in particular we should have been able to take a point from a lethargic Villa team. Yet still, they took points from all four matches; they didn't let a cheap goal in for the loss, as they've done in the past. Arsenal had a clean sheet in all four games, and that's definitely a step in the right direction.

Frankly, Arsenal have a crucial period in the league right now, starting Saturday: Home to Middlesboro. Away to Everton. Home to West Ham. Away to Birmingham. Home to Bolton. The upper-half teams in that stretch -- Bolton and (barely) West Ham -- will be visiting Highbury, and the away matches are very winnable games.

That run comes to a close on 14 Feburary, away to Liverpool, who are 8-1-1 at home this season. A tough match, no doubt. But between now and then, Arsenal have a real chance to make up some ground. Those five matches represent a real chance for Arsenal to take 15 points -- and they need to come close to that, if they're serious about playing in Europe next year. But if the Gunners head into Anfield on Valentine's Day with 49 points and five wins on the trot -- fighting Liverpool for position -- I rather like their chances. (And how huge would that match be?) That key stretch also includes the return leg against Wigan in the Carling Cup and the FA Cup tie against Bolton at the Reebok; the Anfield match is followed by the Champions League tie against Real Madrid. So by mid-February, we could be feeling much better about Arsenal's year.

It will be an interesting period for the Gunners, and for the league in general. I'm looking forward to it.

Again, my apologies for the posting gap. But I'm back on the case; expect more soon!

03 January 2006

EPL Predictions - Midterm Check

Back in August, Cisko and I both made predicitions as to how the EPL Standings would look at the end of the year. Now that we've reached the halfway point of the season, it's time to see how we're faring. I've calculated how many positions off each of us are based on the current standings and how the teams are faring relative to their finishing positions from last season. Here's how things shake out...

2Man Utd*-2+1
9Man City+5+3-1
10West Ham+6+6na
12Aston Villa-1-4-2
17West Brom+3+1*
total positions off7884

Really these numbers just confirm what we already know...

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