Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Best et al: Ed Ponders Liverpool vs. Man City and the Champions League Semi-finals

photo by thelastminutevia PhotoRee

Ed certainly believes he is one of the best:

Liverpool vs. Man City:  Liverpool vs. Manchester City was certainly the game of the year.  Exciting end-to-end action prevailed.  Each side took and had chances to win it, but it was Liverpool that executed (or got lucky?) when it mattered and took the three points.  Two referee mistakes were notable.  The first, when Suarez clearly dived, should've been a second yellow for the Uruguayan.  The second, when Suarez was clearly shoved (two-handed like) by a beaten Vincent Kompany, should've been a penalty kick.  Perhaps these balance each other out.  Only a visit to parallel dimensions could solve this.

--  Louis Suarez is No. 1?:  While it is true that various players had terrific games for Liverpool -- notably Coutinho and Sterling -- one cannot overlook Suarez's impact.  He was credited with an assist, his passing was outstanding, and his tenacious play constantly had City's defensemen on their heels.  Suarez manner of dribbling is astonishingly direct; he attacks left and right with his head down and body crouched in a position of leverage, and he merely thrusts the ball left or right and accelerates past.  He is also, to his credit, undeterred by failure.  This is similar to Messi, as each more frequently than most people realize simply get the ball taken from them when they surge forward.  That said, in light of the number of goals he's had in the BPL despite missing the first ten games (29 in 29 appearances), as well as the number of assists (12) and overall influence, it's time to put aside his petulant and erratic behavior and recognize that he is undeniably one of the best players in the world.  What I mean by this, is in 2014 he arguably is the best player in the world.  Really.

-- Everton's Run:  Unfortunately, even though Everton can take fourth if they win out, it looks more likely that Arsenal will do so given Arsenal's pathetic schedule through the end of the year.  Recall that this is what Arsenal does:  they start out the season strong, they start to slip in the middle, and they collapse at the end, but somehow, someway, they creep their way into the Champions League in the most uninspiring manner possible.  I suppose that's good coaching.  I just don't know, because it's painful to watch.  Everton, should they make it, will be so fired up it won't matter who they play.  Arsenal will simply be itself, and crumble at the first sight of a decent team.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Four More Games: Liverpool 3 - Manchester City 2

Fans of Manchester United read no further -- you have been warned. Scott's team is on a roll:

Spent.  That is the only way to describe how I felt at the end of Liverpool’s laborious and lucky win over Manchester City last Sunday.  Having started the match so fresh and optimistic, I soon eased back to enjoy the 2-0 lead with my children, all of us rocking our Reds gear.  Soon punished for my premature comfort, it was not long before I literally took off what was clearly not a lucky Liverpool shirt.  We’ll never know if my sartorial rectification influenced the universe and the ultimate result, but I can say, with some conviction, that those Bud Light superstition commercials are spot on – it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

The tone of the day was set even before kickoff.  Minutes of high-decibel singing/screaming of You’ll Never Walk Alone were followed by a poignant, incredibly silent single minute of respect to remember the 96 who died in the Hillsborough disaster.  The juxtaposition of those minutes was an audible underscore of the respect we have for this sport and for those who passionately follow it.

This game, like most others, was not short on controversy.  After picking up a deserved yellow in the 3rd minute for a rash challenge (even if only minimal contact was made), Luis Suarez should have received a second yellow later on.  My relief at Mark Clattenburg’s leniency was tinged with the shame that Suarez should have felt and the heavy disappointment that comes with a backslide in behavior.  I really thought the Uruguayan was beyond this crap and hope this was a one-time relapse.

Liverpool, and Raheem Sterling in particular, were excellent during the first half.  The 19-year-old’s composure to feint left before going right to score was extraordinary.  The Reds were lethal on corners with Captain Fantastic only kept off the score sheet by Joe Hart’s amazing reaction save.  But then Gerrard supplied Martin Skrtl who flicked to the far post.  The only surprise was that they were only up by 2 before Manchester City finally found their way into the game.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The David Moyes Experiment: Bayern Munich 3 - Manchester United 1

photo by UC Davis College of Engineeringvia PhotoRee

The David Moyes experiment rolled on, lowering expectations across the globe, and convincing a vast majority of Manchester United fans that having 20 percent of the ball and only the barest of opportunities to score with it somehow showed progress in a season full of reverses.  Its chief adherent seemingly believing in minimalist football as the way forward, Moyes managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a large number of United supporters, many of whom now appear content to blame the players for their repeated failures and vastly reduced horizons -- a world where "trying" is the moral equivalent of winning, and a game in which opponents are hoped to be "contained" rather than nails to be hammered down.

The latest chapter in the experiment saw United fans flush with success at a 0-0 halftime draw, on the heels of a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford eight nights ago, even though their team had only recorded a single shot taken in anger on the opposition goal in their latest endeavor.  Pulses were further raised when Patrice Evra lasered an unstoppable shot into the upper corner of the goal to hand his side a 1-0 lead on the evening, 2-1 on aggregate -- a lead that lasted a bare 23 seconds before Mario Mandzukic, playing Lucy to Moyes' Charlie Brown, snatched the ball and the lead with a stunningly quick equalizer.  Not content to sit on their goal, Bayern added two more in relatively quick succession, as the United end was swarmed by the home side in the contest's last half hour.  Not wanting to appear rattled, Moyes waited until the game's 75th minute to work his Plan B, bringing on Chicharito and later young Adnan Januzaj, the latter after Bayern had put the contest's final result beyond any doubt.

If the Moyes' experiement is ended soon, he can be satisfied he went down being loyal to those who got him here: an injured Wayne Rooney being Exhibit A.  Clearly showing the effects of a recent layoff and a painkiller shot in his foot, the Englishman was a ghost of his best self tonight, squandering some of the few half-opportunities his side were able to scratch out.  Yet he remained on the pitch, limp aside, for the full 90 minutes, as both Darren Fletcher and a pacy Danny Welbeck were sacrificed.

While many are quick to criticize the players, and some of them rightfully so, it is this author's belief that the effort put forth tonight is the best the manager is capable of coaxing out of his squad -- a group of people who -- unlike many sheep-ish fans -- largely stopped  believing in him a long time ago.  And without a head a body is -- what?  A corpse.

It's time to face facts: 7th in the League, and out of all competitions in record time.  The man is just not good enough for this team.  David Moyes needs to go, and the sooner the better, so the club can begin to rebuild after the appalling disaster in which this experiment has resulted.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

All Too Easy: Manchester United 4 - Newcastle United 0 -- Game Recapand Player Ratings

Juan Mata ran the show as Manchester United scored four goals for the second week running and cruised to a 4–0 victory over Newcastle United at St. James Park on Saturday afternoon. Mata scored two goals himself, and was complemented in his offensive efforts by the oft-ignored combination of Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez. Overcoming a tedious first half in which Mata's stunning free kick was the solitary moment of sheer brilliance, the visitors scored three times from the run of play in the second half to turn a tight game into an all-too-easy victory over the struggling home side. 

Defensively, Anders Lindegaard did well to gain a shut out in his first League action of the season, denying Newcastle striker Papis Cisse on three separate occasions, and Phil Jones and Chris Smalling did just enough to keep Newcastle's other players off kilter despite a few shaky moments. The victory kept the Reds' small burst of momentum alive heading into the mid-week Champions League clash in Munich, although in retrospect the game will be viewed as relatively meaningless for both sides at this point in the season. Herewith the individual player ratings on a rare comfortable win:

Lindegaard: Did well to deny Cisse both before and after the break. 7.0

Valencia: Guilty of too many turnovers while playing out of position. 6.5

Jones: Needs to work on his distribution from the back, but generally a solid effort. 6.5

Smalling: Bedeviled by poor clearances. 6.5

Evra: Easily beaten, yet again. Rested near the hour mark. 6.0

Fletcher: Protected the back four well. 6.5

Fellaini: Most dirty players are loved by their own fans. Fellaini looks the odd exception. 5.0

Young: Decent crossing before being forced off after 15 minutes. N/A

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Parting Gift? Manchester United 1 - Bayern Munich 1: Game Recap and Player Ratings

photo by sun dazedvia PhotoRee

Defying the critics at home and abroad, Manchester United played a rope-a-dope first half before showing more of their teeth after the break in a 1-1 Champions League draw at Old Trafford Wednesday night.  Fully embracing what could be the club's last European contest for quite some time, the hosts withstood a brutal frontal assault from their German visitors in the first half, with the Munich holding nearly 80% of the possession prior to the interval.  Nevertheless, it was the home side in the form of Danny Welbeck who missed the best chance of the half to go in front prior to the halftime whistle.
After the break was a completely different story, with both teams taking turns attacking the others' goal, and real chances were created at both ends.  United Captain Nemanja Vidic was the first to find the net, with his unmarked header gifting his club an unexpected 1-0 lead.  As should have been expected, however, Bayern fought back to tie the contest through a finely worked play that ended with Bastian Schweinsteiger putting the ball into David De Gea's goal. 
Although neither side will be disappointed with the outcome, in general the Germans will be pleased to have scored their away goal, a tally which leaves United needing to score on their trip to the Allianz Arena in a little over a week's time.  The surly nature of the contest was underscored by the  high number of rough tackles, yellow cards and a final red for the Bayern goalscorer, which will mark him as ineligible for the return leg.
Herewith, the individual player ratings from a spirited night at Old Trafford:
De Gea: Pinpoint clearance and a fine save to deny Ribery before the break.  7.5

Jones: Filled in at right back and was there when he needed to be. 7.5

Ferdinand: Was right in the mix tonight.  Looked like the old days.  7.5

Vidic: Looked nervy at the outset but gradually settled. He may have been unguarded, but it was still a clutch header from a very tough position to give his side the second half lead. 8.0 

Büttner: Appeared overmatched right from the get go, but gradually settled down and played his way into the match. Should be renamed Hoofner. 7.0

Valencia: Early yellow and lucky to stay on the pitch after a bone crunching second half tackle. Moved to right back to accommodate Ashley Young with 15 minutes left. 7.0

Carrick: Decent distribution when he was able to touch the ball. Forced to stay way back for most of the night. 7.0

Fellaini: Just not good enough to play in a holding role. Gifted the ball repeatedly to the visitors and lost his man for the Bayern equalizer. 6.0

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Plane and Simples: Manchester United 4 - Aston Villa 1

photo by [niv]via PhotoRee

In a season which has veered from one disaster to another, Manchester United held off the impending doom and gloom surrounding the club for at least another few days, winning 4-1 at Old Trafford over a hapless Aston Villa side that did more damage to itself than was inflicted by the home side.  Despite the misleading final margin of victory, the performance was far from easy on the eyes, and typical of most under manager David Moyes this season: devoid of style and attacking flair for much of the match, and papering over the cracks of a sloppy defensive effort.  Still, a win is a win, and United at least head into the mid-week Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich without the customary hand-wringing and cringeworthy explanations of another puzzling performance.

Standouts on Saturday afternoon included Juan Mata, whose scruffy goal represented the first real return on the board's largest-ever investment, and Shinji Kagawa, who played the number 10 role as if it was tailor-made for him.  Wayne Rooney also offered a passionate performance for the Reds, scoring one goal from the run of play and another from the spot while leading the line.

Herewith, a look at our individual player ratings on a  game that should be seen as no more than it was: a home win over a poor team that missed some very easy chances.

De Gea: Screened by the wall on Westwood's free kick, and little enough to do after that. 7.0

Rafael: Gaining quite the collection of yellow cards this season; seemingly a red card waiting to happen every game.  Good thing Bayern is coming into town....  6.0

Jones: Filled in at right back after the break, but was fortunate that Benteke couldn't find his range when played onside.  6.0

Vidic: Fortunate not to give up a penalty.  6.0

Büttner: Yet another dire performance.  4.0

Fletcher: Efficient, but not the same player he used to be. 6.0

Fellaini: Being uncomfortable with the ball at your feet is not a good quality for a central midfielder.  5.5

Young: Just not good enough. 5.0

Clasico Fondue: Ruminations on Barcelona and Real Madrid

photo by Rodrigo Moraesvia PhotoRee

Scott hasn't had to eat much humble pie this season:

Watching Neymar dive last Sunday to win a penalty was hard enough without the shouts of joy that erupted from my Dutch friend.  I had kind of forgotten that John was a Barcelona fan when I accepted his kind invitation to host our family for an El Clasico viewing party, complete with fondue dinner.  The offer was further sweetened when he offered to delay the viewing until after my son’s soccer game, poorly scheduled (by me, no less) for 3pm.  Not that I would have declined the invitation were I better informed as to his fandom (they are really good hosts), but I might have been a little more prepared.  And I definitely would have worn my Real Madrid shirt (although I did have my Real Madrid hat). 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t even make fun of my friend for being a bandwagon Barca fan (like most of them are) because he came by his team honestly.  It seems he followed Johan Cruyff and his fellow Dutch cohorts to the Catalan team and has been a fan ever since.  Damn it. 

No matter which team you support, it was a chaotic day.  Lots of goals made for lots of excitement.  Lots of penalties made for lots of debate.  And lots of mistakes fuel those debates.  Two things are clear in my mind: (1) Ronaldo was fouled outside the area and should not have been awarded a penalty; and (2) Neymar dove and did not deserve a penalty (nor Sergio Ramos the red card) but did deserve a yellow card. I got so worked up that I was trying to rationalize why Iniesta was not really fouled later.  In my defense, he was sure looking for the penalty.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Game Day Beer Review: St John Brewers' Island Hoppin' IPA

In which Ed definitively proves that some beers just taste like vacation:
I am confronted with a kaleidoscope of colors on the illuminated bar of  Grand Palazzo -- orange and pink and yellow and somewhere in the background, the orange brown of St. John Brewers' Island Hoppin' IPA (St. John USVI, 6.2% ABV).  Our bartender keeps bringing out something new, something even more colorful than the next.  It's all strikingly similar to the neon display beneath the sea that I've witnessed each day I've been here.  Beautiful royal angelfish, immaculate polka dot box fish puffing at the sand, vivid purple damselfish frolicking through the coral -- all of these have turned at least one of their eyes to me as I grope my way through the sapphire blue water behind them, an awkward stalker from a far away world.  But yet I still return to the familiar, and Island Hoppin' IPA has much of that: flavorful hops abound, and the firm feel of a substantial foundation of the style holds the line.  Yet there's something more there -- a sniff  of fruit?  A touch of mango or pineapple? It's hard to discern, as I'm lost in the islands on a journey that takes me to an indefatigable supply of abandoned beaches with sugar sand and plastic blue waters.  With mask and snorkel always at my side, I contemplate the joyous repetition of our days.  But like the IPA, I remember there's something more substantial to return to, even than this paradise.  Just not quite yet....
Island Hoppin' IPA, a foundation of the familiar with a bashful hint of the color of the islands.  A-

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

David Moyes Must Go: Manchester United 0 - Manchester City 3

Eden Dzeko bookended halftime with two goals, the first coming less than a minute after the opening whistle, to lead Manchester City to a third straight derby victory over cross-town rivals Manchester United, and Yaya Toure added a third goal in stoppage time to create the game's final scoreline. The performance was another vintage effort under David Moyes, as a shapeless and shiftless Manchester United showed little fluency in attack and created a paucity of opportunities in front of a sullen and early departing home crowd at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Displaying his now familiar flummoxed look on the sideline, a clueless Moyes could only sit and watch as the blue half of Manchester rolled easily past his charges, challenging virtually every United cross and breaking up almost all of the Red Devils' offensive chances before they had the opportunity to become even remotely threatening.

Shut out at home yet again this season, United displayed a willingness to attack before the interval but too often lacked a focal point to their offensive efforts. Defensively the team appeared nervous and exceedingly edgy, and they were victimized by a routine training ground exercise for the goal that put the game well out of reach. Having been warned only minutes before when Fernandinho headed just over the bar, seemingly half of the home side's defense stood like statues as the big Bosnian landed the killer blow. City closed out the game in a state of exceeding comfort, as United seemed almost content to surrender to a fate they have become increasingly familiar with this season. Coming after yet another false dawn of two straight victories, the derby loss served only as a stark reminder of the action urgently required by the club's directors: David Moyes Must Go.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Comfortable: Manchester United 2 - West Ham United 0

photo by OliBacvia PhotoRee

Manchester United rode two Wayne Rooney goals to victory over West Ham United in a game that meant little to either team, but did manage to keep United's momentum moving forward before the Manchester derby early next week.  The first Rooney strike, from nearly 50 yards out, easily recalled the exploits of the watching David Beckham, with the United forward spotting the West Ham 'keeper off his line before volleying home from near the center line.  The Englishman's second goal was a poacher's delight, Rooney the recipient of a poor clearance attempt and able to slot the ball into an open net after shuffling his feet to corral the errant pass.

Although it was true the Reds' offense looked more fluid today in a game that saw Rooney supported by both Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa, the visitors were unable to capitalize on their lead after the break, flubbing several opportunities to widen their margin of victory on a day that saw no lack of quality goals in the League.  Herewith,  the individual player ratings on a relatively comfortable away win.  

De Gea: Needed to stop Carroll's early header and did so. A little indecisive on a late cross, but didn't have much else to do tonight. 7.5

Rafael: Early yellow and beaten by Downing; aways looks one rash decision away from a red card of late. Improved as the game wore on. 7.0

Jones: Outleaped by Carroll on occasion, but had help keeping the Hammers' big man in check. 7.5

Carrick: Great distribution from the back and a confident performance in defense from the midfielder.  7.5

Büttner: Did well enough filling in for Evra, although did not face the same kind of test he will endure in the Champions League.  7.0

Mata: Great touch, fluid movement and beautiful passing.  7.5