A New Dawn in Europe?

  • The UEFA Champions League group stage draw is intriguing
  • Real Madrid are in transition and Barcelona in decline
  • Juventus, PSG, and Atletico Madrid are serious contenders

Atletico Madrid, the UEFA Europa League holders, have been drawn in a tough UEFA Champions League Group A along with Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, and Club Bruges. Diego Simeone’s team are, arguably, the best team in Europe right now and will see the transition at Real Madrid as an opportunity to finally win the ultimate prize.

Lucien Favre has started well at Dortmund and he will hope that Monaco’s current weakness will help the 1997 champions into the second phase. Bruges, a power in the 1970s, are surely making up the numbers here and will do well to get points on the board in what is one of the more difficult groups.

BVB will need to start well. With the key back-to-back double header against Atletico, it’s vital that Favre’s team win away in Belgium and at home to Monaco before the pivotal clashes with the Spaniards. If they don’t, then opportunity knocks for Monaco. Two wins against Bruges – and a point in Dortmund – would have them in a very strong position going into the last two match days.

Group B is also intriguing. Barcelona, a gently declining European power, confront Internazionale, Tottenham and PSV. Spurs will be expected to join the Catalans in the next round, especially as Inter must face Barcelona twice on match days 3 and 4.

For all the talk of Liverpool finally winning some serious silverware this season, Group C has presented them with a serious challenge and a real danger of elimination. If Napoli can win in Belgrade against the returning Red Star, then a victory over Jürgen Klopp’s team at the San Paolo would given them a cushion going into two hugely difficult encounters with PSG. Liverpool’s opening game at Anfield against the French is, therefore, key.

Group D is the most even. Porto, Galatasaray, Schalke, and Lokomotiv Moscow all have hopes of progression. The Galatasaray-Schalke double-header will go a long way to deciding who accompanies the Portuguese into the last 16.

Bayern will surely be too strong for the regal opposition of Group E. Benfica and Ajax are evocative names and either could accompany the Bavarians into the next phase. The Portuguese have the edge but, once more, the double-header with Ajax on match days 3 and 4 will tell a tale. AEK Athens could play a major part in determining who comes through if they can take points from the more fancied sides.

For once, Manchester City have no excuses. A group containing Hoffenheim, Lyon, and Shakhtar Donetsk is tricky but holds no fears. The real interest here will be seeing who accompanies them into the knockout rounds. Recent history suggests the Ukrainians, but all three sides have a chance.

Real Madrid, who finally look vulnerable again, will probably make it through Group G with some ease, but you can never count on Roma doing what you’d expect of them. In that sense, there is hope for CSKA Moscow and even more when you look at the fixtures and see their double-header is against the Italians. That’s their window of opportunity.

Jose Mourinho will do well to still be in situ at Old Trafford by the conclusion of Group H, and the draw hasn’t helped his chances. Juventus, and Ronaldo, are clear favourites, but Valencia are the kind of team that can trouble United and open up the serious possibility of first round elimination. Young Boys will enjoy their glamorous adventure, but they’re not a factor in this group.

Predicting a winner is a mug’s game at this point. The only requirement is survival into the spring when the real tournament starts. But the contenders are obvious. PSG, Juventus, and Atletico Madrid look to have the ability to confirm that the Real Madrid-Barcelona-Bayern Munich hegemony is, at least, temporarily over.

Soccer Scribe.

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Atletico Lead the Way

  • 2018/19 is a transition season for many of Europe’s big beasts
  • Atletico Madrid look the best team in Europe right now
  • The time for excuses is over for Manchester City and Liverpool

And so the 2018/19 European football season is underway. After the spectacle and colour of the World Cup, it’s time once again for the overblown daily soap opera of club football. However, even if one is left a little jaded by the prospect, this season does provide a number of subplots that could make it more compelling than currently appears.

First and foremost, this is a season of transition. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, two of the three dominant clubs of this decade, have taken conservative approaches to the market. In the Spanish capital, Cristiano Ronaldo has been sold to Juventus and Julen Lopetegui has taken over the reins left by the preposterously successful Zinedine Zidane.

Meanwhile, in Bavaria, Niko Kovac has been appointed to succeed the great Jupp Heynckes after a very good spell in Frankfurt, and the purse strings have remained tight. Uli Hoeness insists that Bayern are holding fire until next summer.

Bayern’s relative parsimony will hardly impact their domestic dominance, even if Robert Lewandowski now appears to be living on past glories and Arjen Robben is a shadow of the electric player he was. Thomas Müller is playing for his career after an abysmal World Cup, and it remains to be seen if Jerome Boateng is still a footballer or if being a celebrity is now more important.

Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig look best placed to challenge the Bavarians, but both will likely come up well short. It’s in Europe where Bayern – and probably Kovac – will pay the price.

Barcelona, dominant in the Primera Liga, have failed miserably on the continent since 2015. Arturo Vidal will give them a bit of heft – and some brainlessness – in midfield, but there’s nothing too intimidating about the Catalans anymore. If anything, Atletico Madrid, who have kept both Antoine Griezmann and Diego Simeone, look the best side in Spain right now.

Paris Saint-Germain’s financial might will make Ligue 1 the usual procession, but judgement here will rest on what coach Thomas Tuchel can achieve in the Champions League.

That’s also the performance metric that will be used to rate Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Only Liverpool appear remotely equipped to challenge City, and such is Guardiola’s financial advantage that it is only right that he is, once again, compared to clubs of similar means on the continent before we all write contributions to the latest hagiography.

With only Juventus looking like challengers from Serie A, the Champions League looks a much more welcoming place for Premier League clubs – or at least for the two that went furthest last season. Jürgen Klopp has spent enough money to finally win a trophy, so now we’ll see if he’s got the nous to get his club over the line. Like Guardiola, the time for excuses is over.

Given a landscape where the three-in-a-row European champions are amongst those in transition, the time is ripe for Guardiola and Klopp to justify the hype.

Soccer Scribe. 

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Özil Explodes

  • Mesut Özil brands the DFB racist
  • The Arsenal player retires from national team duty
  • Expect the controversy to run

And so it begins. The fallout from Germany’s historically-poor World Cup showing has finally exploded after a few weeks of dark introspection.

Mesut Özil, missing in action for at least four years, eventually got around to telling his side of the Erdogan-Photo story and cut loose in the process.

The Arsenal player explained that he was simply showing respect to the office of the Turkish president by meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan along with Manchester City’s Ilkay Gündogan and Everton’s Cenk Tosun in England prior to the World Cup.

Özil explained that posing for the photograph was not an endorsement of Erdogan’s politics. He accused sponsors of abandoning him in the media furore that followed publication, compared his treatment to that of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (Germans of Polish extraction), and launched a tirade at the German FA (DFB) president Reinhard Grindel, effectively branding him racist.

The former Schalke star also highlighted some of the disgusting comments he was subject to on social media, and announced a de facto retirement from the national team.

There is no doubt that Özil has been subject to racism in the media. Certain sectors of German society are only too happy to single him out at any opportunity. There is also no doubt that Grindel is a conservative who, as Özil pointed out, has a dubious voting record as a Christian Democrat politician.

However, Özil is startlingly naive or self-serving in his self justification. He compares how he is treated with Podolski and Klose by suggesting that he is always referred to as “German-Turkish” while they are never “German-Polish”. This would seem a fair point until you ask if Podolski and Klose have been photographed on election hustings with a head of state who is locking up German journalists – which Erdogan has done.

You can’t really claim that you are “treated differently” when you go out of your way to accentuate your indifference to cases like that of Deniz Yücel, imprisoned by Erdogan for a year on accusations of espionage, and only released in February, a few months before the Erdogan photo op.

Meeting a head of state is a political act even if it is not intended as such. Erdogan didn’t meet Özil because he was ordinary. He did it because he is famous. Basically, he used him precisely because he is different. It’s fantastically naive for Özil to imagine otherwise.

As for “respecting the office”, where does that respect end? Would it have been respecting the office of German chancellor to meet Adolf Hitler? Should one offer respect to an office that has been debased by an incumbent?

In his defence, it is possible that Özil was wary of consequences for his family if he rejected the advances of Erdogan. In that sense, he should get the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t he, but Gündogan, who prostrated himself in his reference to “my president” on a signed shirt given to Erdogan.

The point that Özil has been treated differently to Lothar Matthäus, who recently met Vladimir Putin, is a fair one, though one could argue that Putin, for all his crimes, is not currently locking up German journalists. There is also a sense that it is Matthäus who is using the head of state in this case, such is his sadly insatiable desire for publicity. In reality, Matthäus was meeting Putin as part of a FIFA delegation that included Diego Forlan, Peter Schmeichel, and Rio Ferdinand.

The point here is that of course Özil was treated differently to Matthäus. The latter was a FIFA ambassador – and FIFA ambassadors meet heads of state, including odious ones, as part of the job. That’s realpolitik. Much opprobrium had already been expressed at FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Russia. If people feel that Matthäus got off lightly compared to Özil, one imagines they personally boycotted the tournament themselves.

In his valedictory statement, Özil makes no concession to why the photo appalled many decent Germans, concentrating his fire on racist elements who, let it be said, have long appalled the decent in Germany.

In that sense, Özil has alienated people who instictively support him and see him as a beacon for a world where people of different backgrounds get on and thrive together.

He is absolutely correct that racists want him to be treated differently and will never recognise him as German. The AfD and other right-wing extremists will be delighted with all of this.

However, he has shown a remarkable tin ear in his own handling of this case. One wonders if he felt that he needed to get his retaliation in first given a possible impending omission from Joachim Löw’s next squad.

Özil hasn’t performed for Germany for years. On football grounds, he isn’t worth persevering with. That said, it’s a genuine pity that he is going out like this, with racists the only winners.

Soccer Scribe.

 

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Ruthless France Get the Breaks

  • France win the World Cup despite being outplayed
  • Referee Nelson Pitana had a negative influence on the outcome
  • Bewildering tournament ends logically

And so after a month of confusion, shocks, and upsets, logic finally came out on top. France, the best team in the tournament – and the Soccer Scribe tip – emerge as world champions after a preposterous World Cup final in Moscow.

Croatia, the better side for much of the match, were left to curse some really poor officiating. Nelson Pitana, the Argentinian referee, performed in the manner of his national team, cocking up the key penalty decision and allowing himself to be duped by Antoine Griezmann, who dived to win the free kick that led to the opening goal.

France took full advantage. As good sides do. With Croatia committed to attack, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe proved ruthless on the break. Hugo Lloris’s tribute to Loris Karius immediately eliminated him from contention for the Golden Glove award, but came too late to materially impact the outcome of the match.

France always had the quality. With the breaks also going their way in such critical fashion, there could only be one winner. The Croats fought on, as they always do, but to little avail. This was France’s time.

VAR, conspicuous by its absence in the second phase of this tournament, made its return with a bang. Pitana took a full two minutes to decide if a “clear and obvious” handball had occurred. If it was that clear – and that obvious – then it would surely have been a much quicker call. Poor Croatia will surely never get another shot at the ultimate prize. They deserved better.

For their wins over most of South America (Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay), Belgium and Croatia, France merit their title. They found the answers when they needed to.

After a month of bewilderment which saw Germany eliminated in the group stage, Spain beaten by what was supposed to be the worst Russian team ever, Messi and Ronaldo ejected on the same day, and England making the final four, this bizarre World Cup – which didn’t even have Italy and Holland as qualifiers – culminated in some form of logic. The best team won, even if they were outplayed for much of a controversial and thrilling final. They took advantage of their breaks more ruthlessly than anybody else – and as plenty of teams found to their cost in this tournament, that’s usually the difference between winning and losing.

Soccer Scribe. 

 

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Déjà Vu for Giroud?

  • France are hot favourites to win the World Cup final
  • Memories of Euro 2016 will haunt Didier Deschamps
  • Olivier Giroud could be the decisive factor against Croatia

France go into today’s World Cup final as favourites with the ghosts of Euro 2016 swirling around them. Win and they will be anointed the best team in the world – and considered the best team of their era. A Euro 2016 final and a World Cup win is a compelling argument that they have been the outstanding side of the last four years. Lose, and they will dismissed as bottlers, chokers, and worse.

Croatia, by contrast, are surprise finalists. While Soccer Scribe has consistently tipped France for the final and ultimate glory, Croatia have overperformed in making the last four. This is an unexpected opportunity for a country of four million people.

However, it is not the free hit some are suggesting. Croatia do indeed have something to lose, too. The country is unlikely to ever reach a World Cup final again. The demographics are stacked against them. This really is it. Now or never.

So, this final is about this French generation taking its chance and the entire Croatian nation taking its. France has been here before – and will probably be here again at some point in the future. Didier Deschamps, however, knows his managerial career depends on today’s outcome. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris, and Paul Pogba cannot endure a second final defeat as favourites. Portugal surprised them in Paris. This can happen in sport. But twice? That would seem more fundamental.

The Croats are battle-hardened warriors. Out on their feet for an hour in Moscow’s semi-final with England, they somehow found the reserves of energy to inflict their technical superiority on bright, but inexperienced opponents. France are a different proposition.

The Belgians, one of the best sides in this tournament, were dismissed with consummate ease in Saint Petersburg. Like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of its prey, France managed the Belgian threat to perfection once the initial Martinez thrust had failed to yield goals.

There’s a solidity and balance about France. But there’s also one rather inelegant square peg in a round hole that threatens to destabilise everything: Olivier Giroud.

Forwards who do not score are sometimes lauded as “hard workers” or “good for the team.” Giroud is currently damned with this faint praise. He had three glorious chances to bury Belgium on Tuesday and squandered each one more clumsily than the other.

Perhaps Giroud will come good at the Luzhniki. Perhaps his presence will allow the more gifted Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann to exploit the space he leaves behind. Perhaps. But there’s every chance that Giroud will cost his team the World Cup if he is the one that the chances fall to.

France have history here. They won a World Cup with a non-scoring striker before – the hapless Stephane Guivarc’h in 1998. Zinedine Zidane stepped up that day against Brazil. The ungainly Giroud plays as he looks: with more self-regard than the evidence really should allow. Today might be his day – but there’s a bigger chance it won’t be. That gives the Croatians hope.

In some ways, Mario Mandzukic is not a dissimilar player to Giroud – except that he’s actually quite good at scoring goals. His predatory instinct in Moscow exposed the dozy John Stones. Good players do that. They punish even the slightest mistake. If France had Mandzukic, this final wouldn’t even be a contest.

For all that, France should win. If Luka Modric can be quietened by N’Golo Kante, then it’s hard to see Croatia winning. Tiredness – and they must be exhausted – should also take a toll, especially if France score first.

However, if the Croats can get ahead, things will become fraught for France and then the margin of error for the non-scoring striker becomes even tighter. The expectation here is that France will win, and maybe win well – just as they did in the 1998 final. But Giroud will have a huge part to play in the outcome. Today really will be career defining for him – and his team as a result.

Soccer Scribe.

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Reality Comes Home

  • England missed their chance against Croatia
  • Croatia’s press exposed England’s lack of technique
  • England lacked a ball-playing playmaker like Modric

We live in interesting times. The old Chinese curse has been on a bit of a roll over the last few years, what with Brexit, Trump, and most preposterously of all, the idea that England could win the World Cup.

Until Mario Mandzukic restored a sense of normality to our lives late on Wednesday evening, it was possible to feel like Abe Simpson: utterly bewildered by modern life, bereft of answers, and confused by the sheer insanity of Jordan Henderson in the World Cup final.

There is a tendency to rationalise things after the event. Today, we can pinpoint where it all went wrong for England and assume that the Croatians simply needed time to drive home their technical superiority. But let’s not fool ourselves. England should have been two goals up by the break. Croatia, for all their remarkable energy and ball control, were absolutely dire in the first half.

Ivan Perisic, who grew into the game’s great threat, was lamentable in the first hour. Harry Kane really should have beaten Danijel Subasic when clean through despite being flagged offside. Had he scored, VAR would surely have added another goal to his Golden Boot tally.

In hindsight, that was the difference between winning and being dragged back by Croatia’s much improved second-half display, characterised by an energetic determination to press the English defence. The margins were that fine. Once Kane missed, Croatia still had a chance.

In the first period, John Stones and co were allowed to stroll up the field unencumbered. After the break, Perisic and Ante Rebic closed them down with intent, turning freedom into claustrophobia. As full-back Sime Vrsaljko said after the game, “the all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t.”

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic wove their pretty triangles, providing perpetual motion to overwhelm the English with numerous good passing decisions. In essence, England couldn’t get near the Croats in the second half. Their technique had found them out. It was then only a matter of time.

Wins over Tunisia, Panama, and Sweden were no grounds for suggesting that the great English curse – the inability to comfortably retain possession under pressure – had lifted. Only the Colombians, shorn of James Rodriguez, threatened to reveal that truth. Only the diligent preparation of Gareth Southgate, keen to practice penalties and change the defeatist mentality enveloping the English game, hid the reality.

Faced, finally, with a team of superior ball-playing technique, England faltered. But there are grounds for optimism. At the last European Championship, England were eliminated by a team who simply had more guts and togetherness than they had. Technique didn’t even come into it.

For all that, there was little sign of Croatian superiority for an hour in Moscow. In a tournament that has seen technically adept teams like Germany, Spain, and Portugal exit early, one wondered if England were going to be the simple beneficiaries of events, humbly maximising what they had while those who had more fell over their own hubris.

Then Croatia applied the press, and for England, the grass turned to ice. For the first time in the tournament, they were precarious. Every incisive Croatian pass cracked the surface of England’s previously-assured footing. Finally, Mandzukic found his icepick.

Soccer Scribe.

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The Great Opportunists

  • England have benefited from lots of good luck
  • Good teams take advantage of good fortune
  • A tired Croatia provide England with a chance to prove themselves

Circumstances, circumstances. In a cup competition, circumstances or “luck” have far greater bearing on a tournament’s outcome than they could ever really have in a league. How else to explain the possibility of Gareth Southgate joining Sir Alf Ramsay  as a World Cup-winning manager?

Despite the hype – and understandable elation – in England, everything has, for one reason or another, fallen tidily into place for Southgate.

A very easy group containing two of the weakest teams in the entire competition meant England had no trouble qualifying for the second round. A convenient fixture list meant the only serious opposition in the group, Belgium, were also already through before they would have to be faced. An inviting Group H – the only group not to contain a traditional giant – would provide England’s last 16 opposition. You get the picture…

But like all teams whose numbers have finally come up, the luck continued. With Colombia emerging as knockout round opponents, James Rodriguez, the star of the last World Cup in Brazil, suffered a recurrence of a calf injury in the final group game with Senegal. England would not have to deal with the Bayern Munich schemer.

After that, like all good teams, England made its own luck. Winning the penalty shoot-out after Mateus Uribe handed back the initiative, showed that England could take full advantage of a reprieve. Dismissing Sweden in the quarter-final showed that they would also greedily take advantage of the total absence of world powers in their half of the draw. It wasn’t England’s fault that Germany and Spain imploded – but England were certainly going to capitalise.

The good news for Southgate is that their luck is still holding. Croatia, the only really genuine class side remaining in the field, once more made very hard work of eliminating an enthusiastic Russian side that gave their all to make the last eight. That the Croats also needed penalties to defeat Denmark augurs well for England.

Croatia must surely be exhausted now. Their two wins on penalties showed tremendous character and nerve. But there is surely an argument that if they were as good as some of their admirers suggest, then they are not really showing it in getting the job done. Denmark should have been beaten late in extra time until Luka Modric missed a penalty. Russia, similarly, should have been put away at that point of the quarter-final, but the Croats lost concentration and gave them an escape.

What are we to deduce from this? Croatia are gutsy but not ruthless. It was their inability to kill opponents off that took them to two needless shootouts. It was their ability to show great resolve in the face of enormous stress that got them through those ordeals. That stress must be taking a toll, though – and that’s England’s good luck.

That said, one thing is sure. The Croats will create far more chances than the moribund Swedes and negative Colombians did. England have needed goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in alert form up to now, but he’ll be properly tested against the Balkan side. Modric, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic are far more creative than anything faced by Southgate up to now. Moreover, England’s biggest weakness is in midfield. Ivan Rakitic could make hay there, linking the play to release Modric.

Genuinely good teams take advantage of their good fortune. On Wednesday, we will find out if England are a genuinely good team.

Soccer Scribe.

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