Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Master Class: Olympiacos 2 - Manchester United 0

David Moyes' Manchester United put on a tactical masterclass in Europe last night, lulling a far superior Olympiacos side into a stupor and allowing them only a couple of niggling goals in a narrow 2-0 Champions League loss at the Karaiskakis Stadium. Smartly realizing they were outgunned from the start, Moyes' boys chose laughter as their most effective counter-attacking weapon, seeking to sit deep and make their Greek opponents collapse in paroxysmic laughing fits in the hope of distracting them from the immediate task at hand. 
Hard as it may be to believe in a season in which not much has worked as intended, the Red Devils worked their gameplan to perfection last night, repeatedly pretending to be unfamiliar and allergic to the  ball by gifting it to their opponent and hoofing one long ball after another from the back. Chris Smalling offered a standout performance at right back for the visitors, pantomiming as if he were playing on ice and causing his opposing number to double over on several occasions. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were their usual steady selves, repeatedly doing the hard work before skying in crosses well over the heads of their closest teammates. And Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick ceded acres of space in the middle of the park, sowing massive confusion through the home side by forcing the Greeks to ask themselves if they were playing a pub XI or the reigning champions of England. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Little Defensive: Thoughts on Liverpool

After another narrow victory, Scott has time to gather his thoughts:

o Now having scored more goals than any other Premier League team (albeit Manchester City have a game in hand), Liverpool carelessly careened to another 3 points last Sunday at Anfield by surviving an all-out shoot-out with Swansea by the whopping score of 4-3.  Twice surrendering the lead after blazing ahead 2-0, the watchword going forward will be “defense.”  As in, “please, any defense whatsoever.” 
o Simon Mignolet is reported to have lamented the team’s defensive performance and one has to wonder whether he included himself in that assessment. The Belgian, so unflappable at the beginning of the season, mostly just flaps at crosses now.  When he is not miscommunicating with defenders as to who will clear.  Fortunately, he’s an excellent shot-stopper and communication with defenders should be a relatively easy thing to improve.  And without belaboring the point or repeating too much the blogosphere chatter, we really need some Grade-A defenders.  Or at least need the ones we have to play like they are Grade-A.
o We are now at 4 games in a row without a goal from Luis Suarez, double the number of games he had previously gone this season without a goal (and then, only once).  Yet the Uruguayan continues to influence every game with his industry, racking up assists and creating spaces for his teammates.  NBC needs a sharp rebuke for erroneously informing us several times that Suarez’ assist in the match was his 9th of the season, tying him for the lead in that metric. In fact, Suarez is way ahead of the pack with 17 assists on the season compared to the second highest which is 11 (Wayne Rooney).
o The only thing that troubled me with Suarez’ performance was that, unlike in previous games where an unlucky post or a brilliant save denied him a goal, on Sunday it was a lack of concentration at the critical time leading to a miskick.  Let us hope that was a one-game thing.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Same Old Spurs: Norwich City 1 - Tottenham Hotspur 0

You can almost smell the ennui in Ed's report:

Well everyone at the top of the table won, some in spectacular style, but then there were Spurs.  Fresh off a waste-of-time Europa League performance (what is the point, actually, of the Europa league?), Spurs looked a painfully listless side for most of the match.  As the boss-man often says, you could almost smell the ennui.  Only Michael Dawson, Spurs' least talented player, seemed to really go after it and want to win.  Aaron Lennon again made some terrific runs that ended with poor crosses to no one or giveaways.  There is no player in the BPL that can beat people at will yet never scores or gets an assist.  His final ball has to rank up there with over-35 recreational soccer league players. 

It’s easy to blame the manager when a team comes out like this, but frankly I’ve seen it happen to every team in the league and unless it becomes a patter it’s hard to blame Tim Sherwood for this.  That said, I’m not sure: he played so defensively and didn’t put in a second forward until the 65thminute.  This is a team that plays good defense but simply cannot score.  It was clear that Adebayor alone at the front wasn’t going to get even a chance without help.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

If This is the Future, Give Me Back the Past: Manchester United 2 - Crystal Palace 0

photo by anoldent
via PhotoRee

An uninspired victory may be better than an pulsating loss or draw, and the three points earned by Manchester United against Crystal Palace on Saturday will undoubtedly lift Mancunian spirits sagging from a depressing start to the 2014 football calendar.  If the football on display in the Red Devils' 2-0 victory at Selhurst Park is the future, however, it's difficult not to pine for the past of this glorious franchise, as the contest can charitably be described as being utterly devoid of quality football and true scoring opportunities.  Marouane Fellaini, newly restored to the lineup after a lengthy absence due to injury, missed the visitors' easiest chance of the afternoon, and the victory was only secured by Robin Van Persie steadiness from the spot and Wayne Rooney's quality in front of net.

Shown below are our thoughts on the individual player ratings on a match that was largely missing what the Red Devils offer in droves when they play their best football: entertainment.  

De Gea: Long periods of boredom punctuated by the need to display his alertness and cat-like reflexes. 6.5

Smalling: Offered very little going forward from the right. 5.5

Vidic: Denied by the bar but commanded the box well. 6.0

Ferdinand: Appeared steadier than in other recent appearances. 6.0

Evra: Won the penalty as the clock hit the hour mark and pulled back a brilliant cross for Wayne Rooney to seal the victory. 7.0

Fellaini: Ventured forward but failed to hit an open net from 12 yards out. Looked comically slow going forward. 4.5

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Empty Cup and Baby Steps: Arsenal 2 - Liverpool 1

photo by Etolanevia PhotoRee

It's fair to say Scott didn't send Howard Webb a card on Valentine's Day, but he's got a more realistic view than most of his compatriots:

The shame of it is that they played well enough to win at the Emirates.  The shame of it is that it wasn't quite enough.  And, yes, Howard Webb should be ashamed for not giving a clear second penalty.  But rarely is a game lost because of one no-call.  As any player will tell you, there is always a series of missed opportunities or bungled plays both before and after a referee makes a critical, incorrect decision.  On Sunday, there was an incomplete clearance and loose defending, not to mention poor finishing.

But, you know, while I really do believe everything in that first paragraph, it still doesn't feel good.  Especially when that second penalty was even more obvious than the first (which was also a penalty).  Especially when Mr. Howard Webb was in a perfect position to make the call.  And especially because you could see Mr. Webb digging in his mental heels as he sanctimoniously wagged his finger in denial.  The only possible explanation for not making that obvious call (just look at it again on youtube and you will see what an incredible mistake it was) is that the combination of Luis Suarez' outrageously theatrical tumble and a previous penalty conspired to block Mr. Webb's better judgment.

I suppose Suarez must take his rehabilitation now another step.  Having refrained from dining on the opposition for several games and recently limited his diving to bodies of water, man-made or otherwise, it makes sense for him to now tone down the Sally Field reactions when fouled.  It was nothing short of comical to see the Uruguayan perform an inverted pirouette which must have taken substantially more energy and effort than merely crumpling to the ground after being bulldozed by Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Baby steps.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Creepy: Thoughts on the BPL and Champions League

photo by mdpai75via PhotoRee

Ed has some creepy thoughts:

Spurs keep playing well and winning the games they're supposed to win.  This means they're creeping up the bracket.  The tough part is Liverpool seems to be doing the same with a big win over Fulham in the last minute.  Spurs Manager Tim Sherwood is doing something smart that ABV never did -- bench Roberto Soldado.  The Spaniard is probably a very good player but he's simply not mentally fit to play or make an impact at this point and needs to sit until he regains some confidence.

I also like the middle three that Sherwood is playing lately:  Dembele, Paulinho, and the Algerian (now) youngster Nabil Bentaleb.  While Bentaleb struggles a bit defensively in the holding role, his creativity and footwork have freed things up in the center of the pitch.  His speed is also better than Erikson's, making him a welcome addition to the squad and yet another player that AVB had no confidence in.  At this point I'd take him over Llamela and Chadli any day.

It was nice to see Younes Kaboul out there at center back; even nicer to see him perform very well.  It's rumored that Kaboul is the fastest guy on the roster in the 100.  True?  Who knows.  All I know is that every time I see him I can't help but think he may be a genie.

But getting back to my original question -- which team do Spurs have a realistic chance of passing to get to the precious number four position in the league?  Not sure anyone is a good candidate.  Arsenal are the weakest team but they' also are the farthest away.  The closest team, Liverpool, is the hottest right now.  Chelsea wins the big ones but continues to bungle things against weaker sides.  Yet the Blues seem most likely to win the league.  And City, well, even without Aguero they're pretty darn good.  Nothing to do but keep your head down and keep, well, creeping.

# # #

This weeks Champions League games should be interesting.  The biggest is Manchester City against Barcelona.  Many thought City could come in and crush the Catalonians, but without Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho this seems doubtful.  Plus, Manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have a knack of being outcoached when he's not familiar with an opponent.  Look for Barca to get at least a goal in this one, putting a lot of pressure on City to win at Camp Nou.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Going to Extremes: Liverpool 3 - Fulham 2

photo by Grant Neufeldvia PhotoRee

In which another last gasp goal secures three more points for Scott's team....
"Polar Opposites" is the only way to describe Liverpool's last two games. At one extreme, we have the 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal last Sunday at Anfield. While at the other we have the nail-biting, sofa pounding, face-in-hands frustration that was only relieved by an incredibly fortuitous penalty, converted with aplomb by the timeless Steven Gerrard.  Many are already asking if such a win away at lowly Fulham is a sign that the Reds are finally ready to start winning the close ones instead of drawing against the likes of West Brom. For me, it is too early for such speculation, out loud at least. But there is something to the question.

Yet another howler by poor Kolo Toure, slicing an unpressured clearance into his own goal, gifted the home side the lead within 10 minutes and it wasn't until Gerrard's sublime through ball was bounced off the post and in by Daniel Sturridge that Liverpool leveled.  Unfortunately, a second half lack of communication among Simon Mignolet, Jon Flanagan and Martin Skrtl, resulting in a hapless clearance attempt by the Slovak, gifted yet another lead via a Darren Bent tap in.

That's when determination, skill and Lady Luck sided with the Reds. With the ball almost continuously in the home side's half from then on, Philippe Coutinho cut in from the right and found the cure for his erratic shooting - a deflection.   Then, when nearly all hope was lost in the 90th minute, a defensive blunder by Fulham sent Gerrard to the spot and he did well to beat the diving Stockdale who had guessed correctly. A hard-earned, lucky 3 points.

Meanwhile, back at Anfield a few days earlier, Liverpool looked a different team against a high-pressing Arsenal side that conceded 4 times in the opening 20 minutes. Boy I hope everybody continues to try the high defensive line...

Martin Skrtl and Raheem Sterling each bagged a brace while Sturridge continued to add to his tally also before a woeful tackle attempt by Gerrard led to a consolation penalty.

This was complete domination due to the skill, intensity and tempo that Liverpool relentlessly thrust upon the discombobulated Arsenal squad. Such was the disruption in their midfield ranks that Ozil was literally spun around and sat down by the lively Jordan Henderson before the notching his assist.  The former Sunderland player has come of age, forcing me to retract my disparaging remarks from last year.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Plugging Away: Manchester United 0 - Arsenal 0

photo by hapalvia PhotoRee

In any other season, the point earned by Manchester United at The Emirates on Wednesday night in a 0 - 0 draw with Arsenal would have been largely satisfactory. Not a vintage performance from the visiting team, by any means, but a shutout and a solid away point against a team near the top of the League; put aside, for the moment, the fact that last night represented only the fourth time in the last eleven meetings that the Reds have failed to defeat Arsene Wenger's men. But on a night in which both Liverpool and Spurs won yet again, and the gap to a Champions League turned into a gaping 11 point hole, a single point was not enough.

Sure, it will do the trick of taking the immediate pressure off manager David Moyes as the Reds jet off to Dubai for a few days of warm weather training.  But with the team appearing more afraid to lose rather than risking it all to win, the performance has to be judged as a relative disappointment yet again.  It was the kind of match in which the visitors' performance inspired commentator Lee Dixon to implore the Reds to "keep plugging away" -- an apt description of their muted, agonizingly slow attack.

Herewith, the individual player ratings from the Emirates:

De Gea: The Spaniard kept his concentration and denied Cazorla twice when called upon in the game's waning moments. 6.5

Rafael: Some decent runs but not the best of deliveries. Landed awkwardly and departed at the interval. 5.5

Smalling: A key block at center half and filled in capably on the right after Rafael's injury. 6.0

Vidic: Strong defending in the air and on the ground after a nervy opening. Did just enough to put off Giroud late on. 6.5

Evra: Never looked in synch with Mata on the left. Gave away a stupid free kick near the contest's end, the kind which has hurt the Reds much too often this season. 5.5

Valencia: Lacking in confidence, he appeared unwilling or unable to take on the opposition. Still, a key header off the line to save a goal. 5.5

Cleverley: Played more forward passes but the accuracy was generally lacking. On the silver linings side, better than his last few outings. 5.0

Monday, February 10, 2014

Crossed at the Last Minute: Manchester United 2 - Fulham 2

Manchester United suffered another late setback yesterday, drawing 2-2 with a relegation-threatened Fulham side. Providing tonic to the League's weaklings yet again, United dominated possession yet failed to create any real attacking threat for much of the contest. Going down early to Fulham's first attack of the afternoon forced the Reds to fight back and pull ahead late in the contest. Being held to a draw with virtually the last kick of the contest at a venue where they made last gasp victories their signature move will only add to the heaps of frustration the team and their many fans are currently suffering. 

Herewith, the game day ratings for another chapter in a season that has rapidly turned into a farce:                    

De Gea: Nothing to do but pick the ball out of the net twice. 6.5

Rafael: Decent crosses but unable to connect. Why was he pulled? 6.5

Vidic: Didn't do nearly enough with his clearance in extra time. 5.0

Smalling: Nothing to do. Literally nothing to do. 6.0

Evra: Wild shot from distance and a tame header just before the interval. 5.5

Carrick: Sat deep in the middle and shot wide from distance. Distributed the ball well, especially from distance.  Gave his side the lead with a deflected bullet. 6.5

Fletcher: Failed to track Steve Sidwell for Fulham's first goal in four games. 4.5

Young: Open lots but not enough end product. 5.0

Mata: Not totally ineffective on the flank, but influence mainly down to long passes and extraordinary touches. Denied from point blank but got his third assist in three games on the rebound. 7.0

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Quick Hits from the Barclay's Premier League

photo by Claudio Gennari ..."Cogli l'attimo ferma il tempo"via PhotoRee

From Correspondent Ed:
  • Bam!  Pow!  Smack!  I think Chelsea just hit the crossbar three more times.  Impressive display from the Blues, whether you like them or hate them.  They took on Manchester City and at times made City's back four look like a tired recreational team.
  • Jose Mourinho is the worst thing that could ever happen to David Moyes.  Each took over an ageing team, but the Special One has Chelsea revived and looking like contenders while Moyes has United looking the equivalent of Stoke.  Is it tactics?  Is it motivation?  Is it personnel?  I recall Moyes opting for Felaini over players like Willian, and recently paying top dollar for Chelsea castaways.  United believes that patience is required for new managers; however, this run will certainly put the Board and Sir Alex to the test.  Especially if Moyes starts losing the players, which may already be the case.
  • Roberto Martinez may be the second worst thing that could happen to David Moyes.  He also took an ageing team, arguably lost his best player to Moyes (another castaway?) in Fellaini and had his other top player on the bench most of the year (Baines), but Everton seems firmly in 5th place and looks a much better squad than United.  So who exactly won when United took Moyes from Everton and Everton had to move onto Martinez?
  • Spurs looked positively okay against that annoying pre-2013 Spurs team known as Hull City.  The beef in the middle of Hull makes them tough to score against with Huddleston and Livermore.  New signing Long at the top gives them some speed that burned Spurs.  Still, Spurs dominated possession but just couldn't get that second goal.  Unlucky?  Maybe, but Roberto Soldado also seems to blame as he seems to get worse from week to week rather than better.  Clearly the pressure he is putting on himself is doing damage.  But do the Spurs have the time or the patience to wait for him to come good.
  • Still surprised that the Spurs are so willing to dump Holtby.  I get Capoue -- the position is overstocked.  I would also get Chadli, as I'm not sure what he adds.  But Holtby seemed to be coming on as the season went on even if Erikson was his equal.  $100MM pounds and what do Spurs have to show for it?  Paulinho is pretty much the only player that seemed worth the price at this point.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Waters, Gilmour and Toure: Liverpool 1 - West Bromwich Albion 1

photo by kevindooleyvia PhotoRee

Scott is happy despite the unexpected draw:

Sporting my Christmas-gift Steven Gerrard Liverpool jersey and still glowing from a midweek dismantling of Everton, I was full of confidence, a little craft beer and an optimism that comes with the knowledge that your team can pull 4 points clear of their nearest Champions League spot rivals as I settled down to watch the Reds rout that certain team which has proven surprisingly formidable over the past few years.  It would seem that West Bromwich Albion was of another mind.  And Kolo Toure lost his, even if only momentarily.  As it was, such a momentary lapse of reason was all it took for the Ivorian to want to move to the dark side of the moon.

While not creating as many chances as a few days before, Liverpool were comfortably in control throughout the first half.  It was Philippe Coutinho providing the catalyst for the scoring sequence when he found Raheem Sterling with a piercing pass.  Luis Suarez, screaming for the ball just to the inside, finally realized he had to move elsewhere and so moved to the outside where the youngster delivered the ball more as a handoff than a pass.  The Uruguayan twisted and turned but, when seeing no opening for a shot, looked to the far post and, with a brilliant left-footed chip, picked out the barely-onside Daniel Sturridge who volley-tapped home.  If I was full of confidence before that 24th minute strike, I was bursting with it after.  Not even failing to double the lead before halftime could change that.

But then the teams switched sides and the guys with the striped shirts started to really move the ball around.  Fortunately, in the 60th minute, Suarez found himself in a little space and toyed with his countryman, Lugano, before side-footing what was sure to mean 3 points for the Reds and another great points haul for the captain of my fantasy team.  Really!?  A kick save?  Damn you Ben Foster!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Hoofin' it: Stoke City 2 - Manchester United 1

photo by Corey Annvia PhotoRee

Wayne Rooney as a deep lying playmaker, Michael Carrick at center back, the visiting team employing hoof and run tactics and playing down to the level of its relegation-threatened opponent: such are the shambolic depths to which Manchester United plummeted with its latest piece of history making, the Red Devils losing to Stoke City for the first time in 30 years. If a team is the reflection of its manager, Manchester United would be preternaturally aging and under intense pressure after its latest loss, another dispiriting and dreary affair at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent. To those United fans who gained succor from the signing of Juan Mata during the recent transfer window, Saturday's performance  -- yet another "unlucky" one according to David Moyes -- was a reality check, as a team which used to score goals for fun has been reduced to scrapping and losing against bottom of the table competitors.

This writer's mother once told him if you have nothing nice to say don't say anything at all, so we'll leave the recap here and move into a set of player ratings that no one in red will be particularly pleased to see:

De Gea: Hung out to dry by Michael Carrick on the first, and had absolutely no chance on Adam's laser. 6.5

Jones: Unafraid to sacrifice the body, but did it one too many times. Hope he's okay. 6.5

Smalling: Moved to center back early. 6.0

Evans: Failed to make even the 10 minute mark. N/A

Evra: Physical match, got more hang time than an NBA player. 6.5

Carrick: Broke up play well but scored what should be ruled as his second own goal of the season with a weak attempt at a block. Should never have been playing center half. 5.5

Cleverley: Unobtrusive? Yes. Ineffective?  It goes without saying. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then David Moyes is officially insane for his persistence in keeping Tom Cleverley in the lineup. Moon ball from point blank range in stoppage time. 4.5