Wednesday, September 29, 2010

While Visions of Sweet Peas Danced in Their Heads

photo by eschipulvia PhotoRee

Chicharito!!!  Tonight was the night I knew would happen several months ago; I just thought it would happen sooner. As close friends -- and anyone else I've spoken with since July -- know, ever since I first saw him break onto the scene at the World Cup I've been predicting that young Javier Hernandez, United's Little Sweet Pea, would be an immediate sensation in his first year in England. 

The kid just has the "magic" in the words of the inimitable B.O.B., a genuine scorer's touch capable of quickly snatching something from nothing.  He did it again tonight, scoring an exquisite goal that livened up a dull game and handed United a famous 1-nil victory on Spanish soil. A beautiful 85th minute run by Nani found Kiko Macheda in the box; a quick pass to Chicharito, a fabulous first touch to control the ball and a calm slotting home past the keeper with his left foot created the only goal United needed on a slow night in the Champions League.

To be honest, the game was in dire need of Chicharito's shot of adrenaline. Prior to the goal in the game's dying stages, large portions of the match were, in a word, boring. Just flat out boring, and I rarely say that about a soccer game, especially a Champions League match featuring "the boys" (as Rio Ferdinand refers to them in his tweets). Not much action, complimented by a surplus of sloppy midfield play, and topped with a gaggle of turnovers. SAF chomped angrily on his gum and glared out from the sidleline while both goalies set up deck chairs and ordered piña coladas to help enjoy the scenery on a semi-festive night in Spain.

I actually found it a bit surprising that Valencia played such a blasé first half before attempting to wake up in the second 45. At home and leading La Liga, Valencia should have come out of the locker room and grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck right from the get go. Instead, they knocked the ball contentedly around the pitch with little purpose for most of the evening, and most closely resembled a bunch of sleepwalkers ambling about the field looking for a late night snack. If the security forces at the Mestalla had been looking at the pitch instead of the fans, Valencia would have been in grave danger of being booked for loitering....

United actually seemed lulled to into an equally comatose state. After starting the game as the livelier of the two sides, United's play devolved over the course of the first 45 minutes until they were lucky to string two passes together by the time the referee whistled the half mercifully to a close.

Second half action picked up a bit, as the goalies actually had to turn over to avoid a sunburn.  But it was Chicharito's lovely goal for which the night will ultimately be remembered, and United left the Mestalla with 3 points secure, and first place in the group looking once again likely.

A couple of concerns did emerge, at least for me, as I watched the match.  First was Patrice Evra's play, especially in the first half. Evra was completely scalped by Valencia at least 2-3 times, and the sight of him chasing Valencia players frantically back toward his own goal cause me to wonder what is going on inside his head. He's had a poor year to date.  From his strange attempt at a midfield bicycle-kick clearance against Everton which led to that game's first goal, to his poor positioning on one of Bolton's goals over the weekend, where he left the left goal post inexplicably unguarded, to the nightmarish first half against Valencia, Pat Evra looks completely out of his league right now. Making this even more worrisome is that this is the same guy who over the course of the entire season last year was probably United's single most consistent player. The trauma of his World Cup experience as Captain of Les Bleus seems to be weighing on Evra and developing into a whopper of a post-World Cup hangover. I hope he shakes it off shortly.

Another worrisome note was Michael Carrick's general ineffectiveness throughout the course of the evening, not that this will be filed in the breaking news column. In fact, it took me almost 20 minutes to find Carrick on the pitch, which says all you need to know about a guy who is supposed to act as the team's central playmaker. Several missed passes also contributed to an off night.

But all in all, to sum up my pre-match feelings, I would have been happy with a tie but am delighted with the win. Viva the Little Sweet Pea, and may there be many more goals to follow.  And that's farlieonfootie for September 30.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Champions League News and Notes

photo by FaceMePLSvia PhotoRee

* European nights are great, absolutely my favorite soccer nights of the year. The atmosphere at the various stadiums involved absolutely crackles with electricity. The songs and chants coming from the crowd  last the entire game, and the flags fly before, during and afterward. Champions League provides a much different type of atmosphere than that seen in a typical domestic contest, even one between two top teams. As amped up and loud as Stamford Bridge may be when the Gunners cross town to visit Chelsea, or when United pays a visit from Manchester, the passion exhibited in a domestic encounter is more team-oriented than nationalistic in nature. In Champions League, however, it's not just a team's standing that's at risk; it's the standing of an entire nation that is being decided. Think Davis Cup more than US Open. The crowds are loud, passionate and fully committed, and the emotion carries all the way through to televisions  here in the US -- one of the few foreign concepts that crosses boundaries with no translation necessary.

* The soccer played in the Champions League matches, especially as the tournament enters its final stages, is the best in the world. Better than the World Cup, hands down. To see Barcelona confront Internazionale, as in the semi-finals last year, is to see soccer in its purest form. In contrast to World Cup teams, which play together a dozen times a year or so, the teams in Champions League play together 50 or more games a season. These are teams with players who not only are at the top of their game (i.e, their team has finished top or near the top of their domestic league), but also know what their teammates will be doing without bothering to look, because they've done it together so many times that it has become second nature. In fact, that the Spanish won the World Cup this year I'll take as proof of my thesis: the core of the team right up the middle -- Xavi, Iniesta, Pujols, Pique, and now even Villa -- all play for Barca. Proof once again that familiarity among top footballer breeds excellence.  And there's plenty of that to go around in the Champions League.

* Weird stat of the day: Marseille outpossessed Chelsea 51% - 49%, despite playing the game on the road at Stamford Bridge. Also outshot Chelsea 19-15. Also lost, 2-nil, which could have just as easily been 4-nil if not for the goal posts....  Once again goes to show you how important statistics are in footie.

*Arsenal 3 - Partizan 1. Battle of the penalties, with Partizan taking two and scoring one, and Arsenal taking one and scoring none. Bendtner-lite (aka Chamakh) with the 10.0 from the Russian judges for the perfect dive on the edge of the area, just edging out the Chinese women's team.

* What's up with Real Madrid?  Sure they won, 1-nil, but they beat Auxerre, not exactly a world beater, at least according to my rudimentary knowledge of Ligue 1.  Real aren't scoring goals this year despite a strike force containg Higuain, Ronaldo, DiMaria and more. Luckily for them they're not conceding goals, either (I think they've given up something like two all year). So one way of looking at it (the optimist's) is that Jose's got half his magic working. Watch out when he gets the other half in gear....

* I love games in Russia, as it appears that most of them are played on astroturf in front of empty seats overseen by men in military uniforms holding Kalashnikovs. Looks to me alot like the major indoor soccer league over here in the US.....  Spartak Moskva 3 -  Zilina (who?) 0.

* I'm in need of an Italian correspondent. I think I've pretty much figured out the EPL and even La Liga, but the Serie A, other than AC Milan and Inter, remains a mystery. I've seen Roma play several times but can't really judge how strong they are. Qualcuno leggendo questo parlano italiano e vuole scrivere una colonna per una pagina web di calcio??  In any event, Roma rolls 1-nil over Cluj (speaking of which, the Romanian league is something I SERIOUSLY don't have a handle on, but I think my friend Ed might. Will have to remember to ask him the next time I see him)......

* Ajax 1 - Milan 1. Robinho is still terrible despite changing teams and countries, Ibra is on fire after his move from Barca to AC.

* Schweinsteiger 2 - FC Basel 1. Nothing pithy to say here.

* FC Braga va. Shakhtar Donetsk. Did anyone watch this match?  Anyone?  Anyone? Bueller?  3-nil Shakhtar. They're rolling.  And so am I.  That's farlieonfootie for September 29th.

News and Notes

Actually, all notes and no news.  Sorry, kind of an anti-NY Times "None of the News That's Fit to Print" day in advance of tonight's European matches:

* First up, from ESPN: Are Europe's Football Teams Going Broke?  Long but insightful article looking at the shambolic state of team finances among the Spanish and English giants.  Only the Bundesliga -- with some tickets prices as (Joachim) Löw as $15 -- appears to be escaping the tidal wave of red ink.

* Again from ESPN, a recap of this past weekend's action in the EPL.  Reviewing a Wild Weekend in the Premier League.  Humorous look at City's title challenge, and the "Top 4's" weekend to forget.   Any writer clever enough to tag Arsena's Manuel Almunia as a "Poor Man's Robert Green" is worth reading.

photo by IvanG via PhotoRee

* And here's one more for yesterday's column: Manchester United Plan Sensational Return for Atletico Madrid Star Diego Forlan.  Do I need to say anymore?!

* Give a listen to this: The EPL Podcast.  It's from our friends at, who consistently put out excellent news and commentary on the Premier League.  I listened to the podcast yesterday, recapping the past week's games and looking forward to this week's European matches in both Champions Leage and Europa League, and really enjoyed it.  It singelhandedly curbed my desire to endlessly scan the South Florida radio scene for something worth listening to (for some inexplicable reason, South Florida  is one of the worst radio wastelands in the US; don't just take my word for it; ask anyone who lives here). Goodbye to the morning commute spent listening to NPR's Cokie Roberts with an update on Washington politics, and hello to wall-to-wall footie commentary.  Of note, I've been listening to the podcast on my smartphone through an RSS subscription to the epltalk website.  Easy enough to figure out and well worth your time.

* One of the topics on this week's podcast was how improved the new format of the Europa League is over the former UEFA Cup.  I agree.  From having rarely followed the UEFA Cup, to now having must-see tv on Thursday's that are part of the Europa League schedule, I've had great fun the past year following the cup exploits (for regular readers of this blog -- all 5 of you -- it obviously helped that Atleti won the whole thing last year!).   Some great matchups this week, probably topped by Juve visiting City in Manchester.  I hope they roll over the Citizens...

And that's farlieonfootie for September 28.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Manchester United Ready Sensational Summertime Swoop for Lionel Messi

photo by adifansnet via PhotoRee

Really grabbed your attention with that headline, huh?  Problem is, there's no truth to it. Not an ounce. But I broadcast the story to highlight the ridiculous nature of the various tabloid rumors that pass as fact and fly by the average footie fan on a daily basis, regardless of whether these is a shred of fact in the story (to say nothing of whether or not the relevant league transfer windows are open).
Grist for the news mill is the primary reason; that, and agents seeking negotiating leverage and using the media as a willing pawn in their high-stakes contract game. Newspapers or websites that publish multiple articles daily need stories to fill their (web)pages, and unfortunately much of the media seems to subscribe to the point of view that it's better to publish something false that not publish anything at all.
Don't believe me?  Take a look at some recent headlines:
I could go on and on; these are only a few of the recent ones I've seen. In fact, if you name a top 50 player, and randomly place him in one of the world's top 4 or 5 teams (or City, one of its richest), you can find the rumor somewhere out there on the internet or in newspapers. It's become like a party game.....  Let's see: where is Diego Forlan headed today?  Hmmmm....  Chelsea sounds good. This, despite the fact that Forlan already played in the EPL and decided to head over to Spain and La Liga. Could he return?  Sure.  Likely?  No.
And it’s not just the British press that deserve criticism in this regard. Spanish papers are also stirring the pot, as are many of the rest of Europe's tabloid dailies.
The height of ridiculousness was reached this past week with the many rumors out of Spain that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out of Real due to his disappointing recent form, and that SAF and the gang at Old Trafford were preparing a £100mm pound blockbuster bid to bring him back (see Outlandish Rumour of the Week: Cristiano Ronaldo to Return to Manchester United). My guess is that Florentino Perez got a good chuckle out of that one (and may have secretly hoped there was some truth to it!). Yes, I know that Ronaldo has never ruled out a return to the United fold in the future, but the chance that will happen before his current contract nears expiration is close to 0.
So I've come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with the onrushing stories is to ignore them. Sure, there are some stories that persist so long (CR7 to Real, Fabregas to Barca, etc.) that you have to believe there is a kernel (or more) of truth to them. But the vast majority of the stories appear overnight in response to recent news events (Ashley Cole's on his way out of Chelsea, Rooney's leaving United, etc.), fly in the face of reason and disappear from the sports pages just as quickly as they appeared. This summer the rumors came fast and furiously, as the World Cup hype kicked the media into transfer speculation overdrive. I am sure there were many young United fans (naïve to the cruel reality of the world) who salivated prematurely over a United midfield composed of Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil, and a front line that included the two Luis', Fabiano and Suarez.  Problem is, that midfield and strike force were never going to happen.
So more grist for the mill gets published, widely disseminated, read by fans and discussed on blogs all over the world. I almost wish I lived in Europe so that I could receive the papers that produce these rumors in their physical form, because then I could put them to their proper use: as fuel to light the charcoal briquettes for my Weber Kettle. And that's farlieonfootie for September 27.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on United's Tie (Ughh!) against Bolton

photo by Terry Wha via PhotoRee

Thoughts after viewing the Manchester United - Bolton game this morning:

* First off, it can't be avoided: Manchester United needed the win today to pull within a point of Chelsea, and didn't get it.  Third straight tie on the road.  Very disappointing to be honest.  Moreover, I think United were probably fortunate to get the tie.  Bolton's front line caused repeated problems for the United defense, which struggled to keep up.  Things settled down a bit after Vidic and Evans switched to allow Vida to cover Davies, but they were never able to totally suppress the Bolton attack.  Again, very disappointing.

* Thank God for Nani.  I never thought I would be typing these words; I have to admit I formerly thought Nani should be traded. I'm feeling pretty good right now that I've been a steadfast supporter of Dimitar Berbatov throughout the past two years, but if I'm being completely honest I've got to own up to my former feelings about Nani. Not that I have them anymore, of course....

I felt, I suppose (to give myself proper cover), like many United supporters: too many wasted chances, the final ball almost always lacking quality, and an aimless sort of drifting through a game with seemingly little focus on what he should be doing or to whom he should be doing it. Also, too many shots that wound up in the 15th row (WAY too many shots that wound up in the 15th row), sailing wildly up and beyond the top of goal. He always looked like he was trying to be the poor man's Ronaldo, playing in the shadow of his older Portuguese compatriot.

In the middle of last season things just about boiled over and I thought my former wish was about to come true: Nani criticized SAF publicly, which is a virtual crossing of the Rubicon for United if ever there was one (see Column 4, La Liga The Temptress, regarding Beckham for more on this particular sin).

But these are different days. Nani may not be CR7, but that's okay. He's not trying to be anymore. I date Nani's newfound confidence and resurgence to the game at the Emirates last year against Arsenal. His wonder goal that game (I think the "Dubious Goals Committee" eventually awarded the goal to Nani, although at the time it was ruled an OG against Almunia) was the result of fantastic footwork and brilliant creativity.  (Quick aside: I love the Brits for proper usage of the English language.  No surprise there, in that they invented it!  But my guess is that the average American sports fan wouldn't even know what "Dubious" means!). His second flash of brilliance that game came on United's lightning-quick counter attack with Rooney that effectively ended the game.

Flash forward several games (ignore Nani's ill-tempered red card vs. Villa) to the late-season game against Spurs where United desperately needed a win to stay in contention for the title. After giving up a late goal to go behind, who popped up for United but Nani with a cheeky little chip over Gomes that very few players in the League would have the vision or audacity to even try.

Nani has carried on from there, fueled by resurgent confidence (see Berbatov, Dimitar) and resulting success, and is now -- especially with Antonio Valencia likely lost for the season -- one of the keys to this season's United attack.  Today's game saw Nani play a key role again: a goal and an assist to bring United back twice against Bolton.  Thank God for Nani.

* Michael Owen is back. I know I said this the other day, but this time I really mean it. The devastating pace may be gone, but the trademark nose for goal is still there. How does the shortest guy on the pitch (playing a Bolton team that is not lacking for height, the one skill in footie that can't be taught!) come off the bench and immediately get his head on Nani's free kick and stick it in the back of the net?  Positioning, plain and simple. Michael Owen is an incredibly smart player and always seems to put himself in the right spot. You do that enough times and the ball is going to bounce your way every now and then. It bounces Owen's way a lot, and he still knows what to do with it.

* United need Rio Ferdinand to get well soon. I love Jonny Evans but to me the United back line is missing the touch of confidence that Ferdinand brings to it. We haven't seen the big guy much lately (although we've heard him a lot via his Twitter feed @rioferdy5) but I keep hoping his consistent return to the United roster is right around the corner. He and Vida form arguably the best defensive partnership in Europe, but they haven't played much together over the last season and a half, and United have been much the worse for it.

* Sir Alex has chutzpah. Very few managers in the game would have had the temerity to substitute Rooney and Giggs and bring on Macheda and Owen. Yes, I know he has the luxury of a deep bench, but on the road, 2-1 down, the guy throws the midfield out the window and adds offense.  Kind of a "Damn-the-Torpedoes-Full-Speed-Ahead" move.  Didn't pay off with a win, but it didn't backfire, either, and let's hope maybe the point earned will prove important later in the season.

Still, the road ties problem is bothering me.  Not sure what it means yet, but hoping it sorts itself out sooner rather than later.  And that's farlieonfootie for september 26.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Random Thoughts from Today's EPL Games

* Uncle 'arry called Wenger a "nutter" right here: Redknapp Calls Wenger a "Nutter". I agree!  "The Professor" seems to be losing his cool much more these days than he did so a few years back. Losing at the Emirates to West Brom today can't have helped the situation.....

* Two reasons Arsenal will not win the Premier League this year: Marouanne Chamakh and Manuel Almunia. Almunia can be relied upon for at least 2 or 3 bad decisions a game. Today he conceded a penalty (ok, that didn't hurt them, but that's not the point) and went on walkabout for the Baggies 3rd goal. How can you compete at the top without a world class goalie?  And Chamakh was all but invisible up top today for Arsenal. What was I thinking when I captained him this week for my fantasy league team?  He looks like the kind of player that will always score the 4th goal in a 6-nil scoreline, but all but disappear when the team really needs him for a score. I saw another writer refer to him as "Nicklas Bendtner-lite," and that tag for me is spot on. He's a waste of space on the pitch.

* Chelsea's victory balloon popped today, didn't it? Not only didn't they win, they didn't score for the first time since Boxing Day last year. In fact, they looked lost for ideas on attack toward the end of the game.  1-nil was a strange scoreline, indeed (lots of guys in my fantasy footie league must've been disappointed to see Drogba subbed around the 70 minute mark), but represented a fair outcome. I still hate Carlos "Chicken with his Head Cut Off" Tevez, but I have to admit I did enjoy seeing his shot go right through the legs of Cashley Cole and hit in off the post.....

* Why doesn't Roberto Mancini play Adam Johnson more?  The guy is a holy terror when he plays for England, rampaging down the right side of the pitch and taking on defenders every time he touches the ball, yet he has only started 3 of the last 9 games for City. I fully admit I'm biased because he's on my fantasy team, but is it just me or do City look more dangerous when he's playing?  They had no width at all in the first half, and their entire offense ran through the center left of the field. Also, Chelsea to me look susceptible to pace, especially Terry and Alex. Why didn't Mancini look to exploit that before the game was almost over?

* Who was the 12-year old playing for Chelsea today?  I think his name was Josh McEachren and the announcer said he was a star for the Under-17 English team, but he's single-handedly bringing down Chelsea's league leading 182 lbs. per man weight by quite a large amount. Even my friend Ed could push this guy around the soccer field.....

* I love the fact that Ian Darke is now the lead announcer for all ESPN soccer games here in the United States. I've had a soft spot for Ian ever since his goose-bump-inducing call of Landon Donovan's game winning goal against Algeria this summer. If you haven't heard it, it's here: "Go, Go USA -- Oh, it's Incredible...!". Best call in American sports since the immortal Al Michaels' "Do You Believe in Miracles?" call of the US upset of Russia in the
1980 Oympic semi-final hockey game (Here's the link: Al Michael's Epic "Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!"). In any event, I love Darke's mellifluous voice and genuine way with words. He is a signifcant step up from Alexi Lalas, et al.

* Speaking of which, I would gauge how seriously the US is now taking soccer with the increasing excellence of the announcers we can now hear over here on a daily basis. In addition to Darke, I absolutely love Ray Hudson and Phil Schoen on GolTV. If you want to know what they are all about, take a listen to their call of Ronaldhino's wonder-goal against Villareal (Ray Hudson and Phil Schoen ) . Great stuff. And don't even get me started on Tommy Smyth. I love his classic "back of the old onion bag" goal call.

* Darren Bent is better than I thought. Two goals today against the Scousers, and the second one pure quality off the head. I don't know why I haven't picked him for my fantasy team in ages, but I attribute it to the fact that I keep expecting him to cool off. 150 goals as of today, and no sign of cooling off yet. I'll have to remember that next week.

Over and out -- more matches to watch!  And that's farlieonfootie for today (again!), Sept 25th.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Column 5: Pre-Weekend Roundup

Ok, to get you psyched up for this weekend's upcoming games, here's some fat to chew on in the meantime:

My thoughts exactly:  Sir Alex Ferguson Mocks Champion Chelsea's Easy Start to the Season This article has a bit of everything in it.  Sir Alex dishes on Chelsea, Man City's flip-floppy start to the season, Wayne Rooney's "dissheveled" performance to date, and one (final) slap at Rafa "Failure is my Middle Name" Benitez.

I don't know whether to be excited about this news or disappointed by it: Manchester United Target $16M Teenager De Gea . This move would take a big step toward securing United's long-term goaltending issue, but make my second favorite team weaker defensively.  Better hope Los Colchoneros have a good backup (actually, I think they do in the person of Sergio Asenjo)!

Arsenal fans are pretty wittyRedknapp Pranked by Arsenal Supporter.  Guess they have plenty of time to think up elaborate hijinks since they don't seem to spend much time celebrating championships.

A Shout out to my friend BLeg, who has a new neighbor: Thierry Henry Buys in SoHo.  Just don't ask him to "hand" over the keys anytime soon....

Master of the Obvious, Gerard PiqueWithout Lionel Messi Everything is More Complicated.  Is this actually news? 

Master of the Obvious, Part Two: Aleksandr Hleb: I Need to Accept that Birmingham City is Very Different than Barcelona and Arsenal.  Umm, yeah.  That's an understatement. 

Over and Out.  Enjoy your footie this weekend -- lots of good games to choose from, starting off with Man City vs. Chelsea on ESPN2 tomorrow morning at 7:45am EST.

And that's farlieonfootie for September 25.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Column Four: La Liga, The Temptress

photo by PhotoRee

So there I was minding my own business, happy in my little footie life following Manchester United and the English Premier League, and having a grand old time getting to know the game.  For the most part, I remained blissfully unaware of the world's other major leagues except when it was impossible to ignore them, in competitions such as the European Champions League.  Sure I knew that Barcelona and Real Madrid had won a bunch of European trophies, but that had to be in the old days, or due to some fluke factor, right?  I mean, there's no way that the football outside of the EPL could be any good, was there...?

My first brief introduction to La Liga football actually occurred when David Beckham left the Manchester United fold to join Real Madrid in 2003.  The news initially hit me hard. Even though I knew Becks and SAF had a falling out (or maybe a flying shoe), it still hurt me as a United fan to see Beckham leave.  The long searching passes, the bending free kicks and the Spice Girls' WAG show all gone in one fail swoop.   Bummer.  I searched in vain for Real games on US television, but 2003 might as well have been another lifetime ago when it came to watching european soccer here in the States.  Rarely available in the US, and even more seldom seen in my house, Becks disappeared into the netherworld of La Liga, a strange and fantastical place that appeared to exist only in my imagination and in the agate type of the International Herald Tribune Sports page.  My enthusiasm quickly waned, and my loss was softened by the emergence in the next season of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo -- there was a new #7 in town, and I quickly forgot about the old one (sorry, Becks).

Flash forward several years to another morning of major disappointment.  This time, though, it was the news that the one and same Cristiano Ronaldo was leaving Manchester United to play for Real Madrid, and this time the departure was based on choice not necessity.  I felt sucker punched.  Wasn't this the guy who had scored 42 goals for us a season ago?  How would we replace him?  And, as importantly, how would I see the joyful dancing across the field, the sheer speed, loping strides, and swerving free kicks that were Cristiano Ronaldo?  (Somehow i've conveniently forgotten the fanciful dives and artful writhing that were also Cristiano Ronaldo).  My once fervent search for La Liga football seemed destined to come back to the fore.  After all, if Beckham and now Ronaldo had been seduced by the dream of playing for Real Madrid, what was I missing?  And could I hold out?

I tried to watch Real, and did so on several occasions.   This time, too, it was much easier to find them on the tube,  thanks to GOLTV in particular.  Barca games were also readily available.  I was too angry, though, to care much for Barca due to United's loss to them in the 2009 Champions League final, and despite watching Real on multiple occasions, I was never able to sit still for a whole game.  Something just didn't click.  Real never felt right for me: too much Galacticos, too little chemistry.  Kinda like the Yanks circa 1985.

But then came a fateful family trip.  Inspired by Chef Jose Andres cooking Spanish food on PBS ("Jose Andres' Made In Spain";, and and Gwinny, Bitty, Mario and Claudia roadtripping through the Iberian Peninsula (ironically, also on PBS) in "Spain: On the Road Again" (, I decided to go to Madrid in person with my one of my daughters last February.  (Incidentally, both series make for great television and are highly recommended.  If they don't make you want to jump in the kitchen and start cooking, they will, at the very least, make you want to jump in the kitchen and open up a nice bottle of Rioja to help you kick back and enjoy the spanish countryside flowing by).  Although Real was out of town during our trip, and I had no idea that Getafe  played in Madrid (actually I didn't even know that Getafe existed, to be completely honest), I did some quick searching on the internet and found that Atletico Madrid were in town while we were there (okay, so we actually planned the trip around the soccer game, but let's not be picky).

And thus the opportunity presented itself:  in order to get "smart" on Atleti, and actually know who we were going to see, I decided to watch a game or two (okay, maybe 5 or 10 is more accurate) in advance of the trip.  Sure, it meant having to watch an extra football game each week, but there are some things in life you just have to do if you want to get ahead.

I knew Diego Forlan, of course -- why, he was an ex-Red!  Although his time in Manchester proved largely unfruitful, his name will forever be sung around Old Trafford (United's stadium) due to the 2002 brace he scored against arch-rival Liverpool.  And Kun Aguero, Diego Maradonna's diminutive son-in-law and Forlan's deadly strike partner, quickly grew on me.  The kid had some moves.

But who was this guy Reyes?  He played for Arsenal?  Why'd they let him go?  He's good!  And Simao?  I knew he played on the Portuguese national team, but I had no idea what a player he actually was.  And what about this Ujfalusi character?  Looks like a hippie, but man can he cross the ball.  DeGea?  Isn't he a bit young to be starting between the sticks?  Maybe, but the kid is unreal -- an acrobat in goal.  These guys were capable of some serious football. And fun to watch.

And then it happened.  Atleti polished off Barcelona right in front of my unbelieving eyes during our visit to the Vincente Calderon, as the stadium rocked back and forth underneath the adoring crowd.  I went to Madrid and fell in love.  I couldn't help myself, actually.  Atleti played great football, really artful stuff, and handed Barcelona its only La Liga loss of the season.  And I came back and just had to watch their season continue.  Despite faltering domestically, Atleti played great European football last year and won a major title (more on this in a later column).

And it dawned on me:  I loved La Liga almost as much as the EPL.  It had become my dirty little secret, admitted only to close friends and no one else.  It would never replace the EPL, but I began to think of it more like a mistress.  The football was good, even great at times, and the players were fresh and exciting.  ESPN's Phil Ball got it spot on in his great piece That La Liga Stuff -- this is a league to love.

And watch.  Alot.  And that's farlieonfootie for September 24.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Column Three: Who Loves Ya, Bebe?!

Random Thoughts from tonight's League Cup Match featuring Manchester United vs Scunthorpe:

Bebe!  United's most intriguing signing of the summer finally entered a first team game in the 74th minute as a repacement for Park Ji-Sung.  Or Ji-Sung Park.  Depending on who you are talking to.  Or whether or not you're in Korea.  I've never gotten his name straight, and I'm a professional fan.  Do not attempt to pronounce it at home.  One thing I do know is that the tv announcers (presenters, I think the Brits call them) pronounced his name one way for a few years, and then switched it around to the other way a couple of years ago-- I just don't remember which one is currently in style.  I do know that Park sells alot of United t-shirts in Asia, though, and that very few players work harder on the pitch than he does.

Anyway, back to Bebe.  You remember him, don't you?  From the Portuguese Homeless World Cup team?  Still not ringing a bell?  Wut?  You mean you didn't know Portugal fielded a Homeless World Cup team, or even that there was Homeless World Cup?  Well neither did I, until I read about it this summer when Manchester United sensationally signed their homeless superstar out of virtual thin air.  I guess the tv viewership  for the HWC must be fairly low almost by definition, because if the participants are homeless, they probably aren't big owners of televisions, either.   Apparently no one knows about it, and this allowed United to sign our potential superstar for only 7 million pounds, which could -- or could not -- be a bargain.  We'll see.

In any event, back to Bebe -- he made his debut tonight!  I'm kind of sad he had to lop off the dreadlocks, though.  It must be true: United really ARE the Yankees of the EPL -- instead of no facial hair, though, they appear to have a no dreadlock policy.  Guess we won't be recruiting heavily in Jamaica, although I do know famed sprinter Usain Bolt (what a great name for a track star!) is a huge United fan, so maybe he can convince promising footballers in the Islands that it's worth it to shave their head to play for United.

So Bebe entered the game and no sooner did he do so than a naked man ran onto the pitch.  Seriously.  You can't make this stuff up.  Stopped the game for a minute or two, because no one wanted to tackle him.   Don't blame them, really.  But soon enough Bebe had a good touch or two, nothing spectacular.  Then the game was over.  Certainly not reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo's debut against Bolton in 2003 (watch this if you want to see how to make a debut: Cristiano Ronaldo's Debut Match Against Bolton).  Can't wait to see what Bebe can do as his United career begins, but I didn't really get a good sense of him tonight.  Guess I'll have to wait for the next League Cup match to see him again.  Let's mark his grade down tonight as an "incomplete" and come back to him again in a future column.

* You know it's a sign you've been watching too much of a sport when you know the referees by sight.  Hello, Mike Dean.  I still hate you for costing Manchester United the EPL title last year.  Yes, when you neglected to see Didier Drogba in an offside position of at least a yard, it cost us not only a game but the overall EPL title, as well.  Not that it was anything big, of course.  It also personally cost me a uniform, because that's what I had to buy my friend Telly when Chelsea won the title and I lost our bet (guess who I was backing?).  I thought cheekily about putting Mike Dean's name on the back of Telly's uniform, to mark it like a Scarlet Letter, but quickly came to my better senses.  I am glad, though, to see that the people who oversee the EPL have thought enough of Mike Dean to "promote" him to refereeing important League Cup matches in front of 9,000 rabid fans versus the boring league-deciding matches he used to ref in front of 75,000.  I'm sure he's pleased, as well.

What is it with Claret and Blue?  In fact, what is it with claret?  I thought that was a type of wine, not a color.  I mean, I know the Brits like their wine (in fact, maybe all of their liquor), but is there really such little originality across the pond that seemingly 50% or more of the teams wear claret and blue uniforms?  Villa, West Ham, Burnley, and now I find Scunthorpe all appear to wear the same uniform.  Perhaps they get volume discounts.  Seriously, though, it's as if the Cards, Yanks, A's and Toledo Mud Hens all wore the exact same color pattern.  Is it just me, or is this slightly weird?!  And don't even bother to get me started on the fact that the Brits don't actually call them uniforms, they call them "kits."  And horizontal stripes are called "hoops." I know this because it's how my friend Telly described -- in luxurious detail --  the type of uniform he wanted me to buy for him when I lost the bet.  Thanks again, Mike Dean. 

Michael Owen is back.  Seriously.  Two goals tonight -- a brace.  Yes, the second was basically bundled into the net, but the first was pure Owen, as only he can do.  Still has a good burst of speed, and always puts himself into a good position according to SAF (that's Sir Alex Ferdinand, the coach of United, for you newbies).  First goals in a long time for Owen, but I'll take them.  I'm glad to see him score. He's been kind of the forgotten man among the United strikers this year, so it's nice to see him open his account; we'll need it as we get deeper into the season.  I do know one thing: depth at striker NEVER hurts.

SAF was in Spain tonight?  Skipped the game to scout Valencia, who United play in the Champions League next week, and left the Assistant Coach, Mike Phelan, in charge.  Seriously?  That's how little respect we have for Scunthorpe?  Can you imagine the conversation before the game?: "I'm sorry guys, but our coach couldn't make it tonight -- he had to go watch someone we play next week....  Umm, but he said to say hello."  Maybe I'm confused, but that's what I thought "scouts" were for.  In any event, Fergie knows best, as he has proved time and time again, and the scoreline proved him right again tonight.  United 5 - Scunthorpe 2.  And that's farlieonfootie for today, September 23.

Column Two, The Sequel; And Now a Word from one of Our Crack Guest Columnists...

photo by cdrummbks via PhotoRee

Apropos the forementioned Ed (i.e., the "muse" of this blog), although I don't always agree with him, it is easy to acknowledge that he knows a bit about the footie game.  In fact, Ed actually plays soccer, in contrast to some other persons associated with the production of this blog, albeit not at a very high level, and in a league that includes many players of an "advanced" age.  

Shown below are Ed's thoughts about this weekend's Spurs' victory over Wolves, as well as a number of other semi-relevant topics.  Yes, I know the "faux Spurs" under-12 team lost to "faux Arsenal" 4-1 last night in the League Cup, but we are not yet able to provide "real time" commentary due to our actually having to maintain gainful employment during the daytime hours, so get used to it.  Or get out.  Either way, your choice. 

Interspersed throughout Ed's commentary I will attempt to make witty repartee and refute Ed's faulty thinking and assumptions.

[farlieonfootie:  Ed, you're a big Spurs fan.  What did you think of their recent victory over Wolves?]

Ed:  Spurs looked fine, not great, but they played with more emotion and were able to pull out a win, which they needed.  Van der Vaart is a very good player.  Loss of Defoe hurts, though, and they are weak in the back.

[farlieonfootie: Agreed.  My sense, though, is that Spurs are going to be stretched thin by playing in 4 competitions this year, and that their resulting form will be up and down all year.  That being said, I have a weakness for Uncle 'arry (how could you not?), as well as Luka Modric.  In fact, some may even allege that I have a "man crush" on Luka Modric.  I don't, or at least I don't think I do.  I do get very excited when he plays, though.]

Ed:  Speaking of weak in the back, the second best team in Manchester comes to mind.  O’Shea and Evans are frauds and would both be a better fit on Blackburn or Blackpool or Black anything but MU.  Berbatov is playing for his career, and not unlike US baseball players in a contract year, therefore playing out of his mind.  I also think it helps him mentally that Rooney is now a non-factor.  Yep, I said that, Rooney is now a non-factor.  I saw him give Fernando a high five on the way out in the second half and thought:  “Here’s two guys that have a lot in common right now; namely, they both kind of suck.”

[farlieonfootie: Wut?  Second best team in Manchester?!  You're delirious, Ed.  Last I checked City was behind United in the current EPL standings. Oh, and I don't think City has won an actual trophy for 35 years or thereabouts....  You know trophies?  Those are the shiny things that winners get. 

I'm pleased, though, that you acknowledge Berba's greatness.  I'll hand that to you.  As for Rooney, any true United fan knows that he has always been streaky.  And while I admit that his play this year has been somewhat "dissheveled" as the Brits would say,  I am confident he'll bounce back.  Eventually.  At least I think so.  Or maybe hope so.  Anyway, you're correct: Torres does suck right now.]

Ed: And while Torres problems are unbelievable considering what a force he used to be, they are not entirely his.  The announcers of that game were correct – Liverpool has no width.  No threat on the edge at all.  Gerard’s “searching” cross field passes are pretty, but also meaningless when the guy over there can do little more than pass it back.  I mean, even you (farlieonfootie) can turn and pass it back, and you're like Giggs and Scholes ages combined!  In short, Liverpool could really use a guy like Landon Donovan, still one of the most underrated players on the world scene.  Just ask Everton.

[Agreed.  Liverpool does suck.  As do both Torres and Gerrard.  No threat at all for the match on Sunday until the ref handed them a way back in.  Too bad for Roy Hodgson, though, because I actually like him.  But Torres is still off his "A" game (in fact, he may be playing a game best described as "C" right now), and Liverpool fans have got to hope he finds it soon.  And despite the laughable pre-season boast of Stevie G that Joe Cole was better than Messi ("Anything Messi can do, Joe can do better;" his words, not mine), I actually think he might lead them to a championship this year.  Er, uh, that is, The Championship, as in the League below the Premier League.]

Ed: Yes, that Everton, who with Donovan looked like world beaters towards the end of the season.  Without my favorite diminutive and heartsick Californian they have looked pretty much like Blackburn or Blackpool or Black-anything.  We always forget that Donovan is the reigning MVP of the MLS.  Laughing?  Well I saw a bit of those MLS vs. EPL matchups this summer, and while the EPL know how to play “football” better, some of those MLS dudes are simply bigger and faster and better athletes than say, 40something British guys named Giggs, if I may throw out a name.  And not just kind of better athletes, but way better athletes.  Donovan plays the American style “I have no footwork to beat you one v one” game, but he can run and cross like no-one’s business.  With him on one side and Pienaar on the other (sorry, I always laugh when I say “Pienaar”), Everton have width, giving guys like the Afro and the Arteta room to dance.  Which leads me to this pond crossing / time traveling quiz question:  Q. What is something that Uncle Harry has always known but took Tom Osborne 25 years to figure out?  A. You got it, pace matters. 

[Look, I like Landon Donovan, but to assert that he would make Liverpool better is an iffy proposition at best.  Of course, he could make Everton better, but so could you right now.  Everton has been pathetic this year, excepting of course the 3 minutes of inspired stoppage time play where they ran roughshod over a certain best team in Manchester.

By the way, I laugh every time you say "Pienaar," too. And that's farlieonfootie for today, September 22.]  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Farlie on Footie, Column The Beginning

photo by Jamiesrabbitsvia PhotoRee

At the urging of my friend Ed, I have decided to devote some of the little free time I have in my daily activities to blogging about the world's favorite game (and I don't mean the NFL).  Soccer, or more to the point, football.  Primarily EPL, but with a smattering of witty (some may even say snarky) observations about La Liga, the Serie A, UEFA Champions League, FIFA World Cup, Euro Qualifying and more thrown in for fun (who know, maybe even the Bundesliga?!)  So from this (very) humble beginning, we'll embark on a journey into the unknown (probably a trip to nowhere, but you never know).  I finally feel as if I have joined the digital revolution in full.

For my first column, I'll focus on my beloved Red Devils of Manchester, England.  If this blog lasts more than a day or two, my bias toward all things United will become readily apparent.  Suffice it to say in short that I came down with a case of Red Devil fever about a decade ago, and my condition has steadily deteriorated from there.

We'll begin farlie on footie with a celebration of the many talents of Dimitar Berbatov.  To me, Berba's talent seemed readily apparent whenever I laid eyes on him, but to many of the Manchester United faithful he was derided and dismissed as lazy and indifferent (in fact, come to think of it, indifferent was probably one of the nicer things said about his approach to the game).  I read this morning that never has a star player had the syllables in his name replaced with the word "flop" so many times as the cunning Bulgarian (Flopitar Flopitov, anyone? Dimiflop Berbaflop?).  But not for me.  I went out of my way last year on many occasion to praise Berba's silky smooth style of playing.  I mean, c'mon -- let's examine the facts: the guy's first touch is unparalleled in the EPL,  his vision is second to none (ok, maybe Paul Scholes!), and he can do things technically with a soccer ball that other players only dream about.... 

But not only did Berba fall out of favor with many of United's fans last year, but in my opinion he did so with Sir Alex, as well.  Look it up: any big game (non-Bolton, Wigan or Burnley) lineup that Sir Alex opted to play had only the lone striker up top, which position was invariably occupied by a certain Wayne Rooney. I can maybe understand the strategy in Champions League, with a more conservative approach ensuring a team will not get run over on its various European travels, but in the domestic competition, in which United had only Chelsea to be truly concerned with, I just flat out didn't get it.  How could Berba, with his guile and magical touch, be sitting on the bench for big game after big game....?  In fact, I didn't get it so much that I repeatedly started him in my fantasy football league only to be miserably disappointed in seeing him stare placidly ahead from the bench as he sat out yet another game.

In truth, after being repeatedly left out of the lineup, his confidence suffered, and when he had to lead the line (I'm thinking back painfully to the game against Blackburn toward season's end) he didn't produce much.

But oh what a difference a year -- and some confidence -- makes.  The goals scored by Berbatov on Sunday were stupendous -- the 2nd one almost ridiculous in its audacity (the Audacity of Goals, perhaps?).  Singlehandly willing United to win against the team's biggest (historical) rival?  Who would've thunk it?  I certainly didn't -- and thus didn't get his many points for my Fantasy team, but that's a column for another day.

Enuf said for the start; in the words of Arnold, "I'll be back."  And that's farlie on footie for September 21, 2010.