Resurgent Inter claim il derby della Madonnina

January 16, 2012 — by Sean3


Atop the tallest spire of Milan’s cathedral sits a statue of the virgin Mary, her gaze fixed upon a Po valley split between the supporters of two giants in Italian football: A.C. Milan and Inter Milan. When these teams meet twice a year at the San Siro, the winning players symbolically join la Madonnina at the city’s highest point. They, adored by their followers as if sprung from the womb of Christianity’s mother themselves, are kings of the city.

In a game that showed nearly even odds, the red and black side should have been the favorites. First in the league, officially the “home” side and with exciting young talents like Pato, Boateng, and Emanuelson mixed in with sturdy vetarans, all three points were surely theirs for the taking. Instead, the transfer drama surrounding Pato’s possible move to PSG created extra tension before the match (not to mention his dip in form and seeming lack of passion on the field – possibly refocused on his girlfriend, Barbara Berlusconi, daughter of Silvio and VP of the club). But it wasn’t just distractions picking at Milan, all credit must go to the blue and blacks from Inter, who’ve been on the rise after a torrid start to the season.

The first half saw Milan consistently pressing , with Ibrahimavich dropping behind Pato and collecting the ball, while letting the very quick and skilled Emanuelson overlap into forward positions (the young dutchman generally plays on the left, but was here being used as a center attacking midfielder). Emanuelson was everywhere in the attacking half of the field, working hard to find space and only misplacing one pass in the first 45 minutes. But Milan could not find a way to goal, with Pato missing a decent chance and only Inter having a real shot – and that against the run of play.

Inter did create some danger down the right wing, where the combination of Zanetti, Maicon and Alvarez worked nicely formed one-two passes to pull Thiago Silva out of position (but what an amazing centerback the Milan man is, and partnered with Nesta…a sturdy pairing). But there was to be no score in the first half, and Inter would surely need to make adjustments if they were to properly challenge for the win.

Oddly,  Milan were the side to change, slipping into a 4-4-2 and moving Emanuelson out to the right. The dutch/surinam player then disappeared for the remainder of the game as Inter turned up the pressure.

It was Milito who had the breakthrough right after the start of the second half. Il principe always looked a threat to score if given the chance, and when it was there he took it, collecting the ball just outside the penalty box, settling sweetly and slotting home against the opposite inside post. His balance was perfection and the finish a thing of beauty. From then on Milan looked as dysfunctional as the pregame headlines suggested, while Inter were the team rising from the ashes, pushing toward the top of the league. Inter pressed and pressed looking for a second goal, and Milan couldn’t put together a proper attacking movement for the remainder of the game – save for a brief flash created by 19 yr-old El Shaarawy (of Italian/Egyptian parentage) who replaced the ineffectual Pato with ten minutes to go.

Inter ran out Sneijder for a bit at the end along with Forlan, both of whom are just back from injury. Milan countered with Seedorf and Robinho, but ultimately 35 yr-old Seedorf was completely owned by 38 yr-old Zanetti, and Robinho has stopped being a threat in front of goal. 1-0 to the visitors, Juventus leap ahead of Milan into first, and Inter continue to push toward a Champions League spot.


Freddie Adu can go to hell

August 13, 2011 — by Sean1

Sell me some soup, you poor bastard.

I’m really excited about the EPL starting. I’m out of town, and I won’t be able to see any of the games live, but I’ve set my DVR and I’m sure no one will text or tweet or email about results. When I get back home on Sunday night I’ll just sit on my couch and watch kickoff as if it was only just happening at that moment.

And since I don’t even want to even think about the EPL I’ll turn my brain energy upon the return of Freddie Adu to the United States and MLS. The little Ghanaian is back from a harsh go in Europe. I blame the system.

Here we had a promising young player, who maybe isn’t really as young as we say he is (that one’s for you, Conspiracy wonks). We send him overseas to be developed. He moves to Benfica during his late teens, a stranger to the culture with his head full of grand ideas bled in from agents and sportswear marketers. His confidence dissolves while he’s alone in a foreign land. He struggles and is moved and moved, and so far we haven’t seen the player for whom we’d hoped.

It’s unlikely he had adequate support when he most needed it, but that’s par for the course when bringing in foreign players to a strange system thousands of miles from their homes. Many clubs buy their athletes for big money then drop them into play as if they were a new part, unpacked from the shop. Kids fall through the cracks, unable to keep up with the demands of advanced football while simultaneously finding a home, learning a language, figuring out how to get laid. It’s tough out there.

So he’s back. Philadelphia, a city whose teams I support to the one—the one being the Union. There was no Union when I lived in the Delaware Valley. In theory, I support the Red Bulls. In theory, because I don’t really pay them much mind. But they’re my local team, and while I’m happy to see if Feddie can blossom in the city of brotherly love, he can also go to hell.


The Pragmatist’s Arsenal (glass half-full version)

July 8, 2011 — by Sean

We’d like to thank Rob Kirby, one of our many Arsenal-supporting field agents, for the following take on Arsenal’s “imminent” demise.

Don't look back.

The football media establishment says that Arsenal is out of the title race even before anything’s begun. With the imminent exits of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (on the heels of the £7M Manchester City signing of left back Gael Clichy), pundits have already decided the Arsenal season is done, dead and buried. Supporters, angry over last season’s utter capitulation, are screaming for Wenger’s head, seeing big names go but none coming in.

For the past two transfer windows, everyone was in agreement. We needed a quality goalkeeper, a rock-solid central defender (or two) and a defensive midfielder as backup and competition to Song. And for the past two transfer windows, we got none of them. And now we need a left back and two attacking midfielders, as well? That’s over half the starting XI!

Reality check:

On the GK-side, Szczesny emerged as a badass last season (regrettable Carling Cup fiasco aside). And even Fabianski showed he wasn’t contractually obligated to suck all the time.

Vermaelan, our first choice center half, spent the entire year injured. But now he’s back. Koscielny enters his second season in the league, better adjusted now to the physicality of the Premiership. Meanwhile, Wenger truly seems be on the reinforcements track this time around. (Perhaps someone will even deliver us from Squillaci, while they’re giving us the upgrade…)

The loss of Fabregas can’t be understated, but it’s been a long time coming. Thankfully, Wilshere had a full season to play beside him and learn from one of the masters. And not only did Song put in a solid shift, adding goal-scoring to his bag of tricks, his body seems largely immune to the team’s uber-susceptibility to injury.

But no one chooses to focus on that. It doesn’t sell papers, and if there’s one thing publishing papersellers like, it’s paper sales. So Fleet Street shrieks with the histrionics and the exclamation points. Doomsayers insist that the exit of three players, all of whom have been tipped to leave from the past six months (Nasri, Clichy) to 2 years ago (Cesc), spells the end of the Arsenal Top Four dynasty, not to mention any title aspirations. And wait, crap, Arshavin may go, too! Not to mention the players the club wants to let go: Denilson, Diaby, Almunia, Eboue, Squillaci, Bendtner and Rosicky. It’s an exodus of mass proportions! Forget Champions League, we’ll be battling relegation!

Get real.


What to Watch this Weekend (April 23-24)

April 22, 2011 — by Sean

Jeremain Lens will need to be on point against Feyenoord come Sunday

We’re approaching the end of club football in Europe, and while no fixture can be taken for granted at this point, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that’s particularly interesting this weekend. The games are important at the top and bottom of the table for sure, but will that make them something we want to watch? We think not.

The few exceptions are below, all times Eastern US, and click the teams for viewing information all around the world. Just think, with so few games to care about this weekend maybe you’ll actually get out there and have a kick about yourself? When’s the last time you did that afterall?

Saturday April 23

9:00am Inter Milan vs Lazio Lazio sits in fourth and Inter in third, with the sides separated by three points and automatic champs league qualification hanging in the balance. Inter does have a better goal difference though so even a loss would keep them in current places, but with Udinese breathing down the necks of the Rome side this match could have larger ramifications.

12:00pm Valencia vs Real Madrid Second place travels to third (though there are 14 points between them). Valenica will look to keep ahead of Villareal, while the Madriders are still keeping the faith for league glory. Highly unlikely on that later bit? Indeed.

Sunday April 24

8:30am Feyenoord vs PSV It’s all very tight at the top of the Eredivisie. Psv is currently in first position ahead of Twente, but only on goal difference, with Ajax siting third one point behind both (and with a better goals-for record than Twente). It’ll be a race to the end, and while Feyenoord aren’t the powerhouse team that challenged Ajax for the title so many times in the past, they’re no slouches either and could cause the champion’s league slots to shuffle this weekend.


Real Madrid Lay Hands on the Copa del Rey

April 21, 2011 — by Sean5

Less than a week after their hard fought tie in league play, Madrid and Barça met in the final of the King’s Cup. Mourinho sent his defensive set into the midfield again, then put in Özil from the start for an added touch of creativity in attack, and sprinkled the whole side with an extra dose of aggression dust.

The force of Madrid’s tackling and their quickness in closing down the Barça players immediately unstabilized the usually unflappable Blaugrana. On the strength of their defense and their quick counter attack, Madrid had far the better of the first half. Pepe seemed to be everywhere and Ronaldo did very well as the lone striker up top (even with Mascherano shadowing his every move). The game moved quickly up and down the pitch, but Barcelona weren’t finding any joy past the midfield circle and it wasn’t until nearly the 40th minute that they finally caused an overload close to goal (the chance fizzled without them manufacturing a shot).

Their one foray aside, Barcelona were lucky to get to the halftime whistle tied at zeroes, especially after Pepe’s towering header above Dani Alves smashed against the inside post and deflected at an agonizing angle across the goal mouth.

The second half was a different game entirely. Barcelona were rejuvenated by whatever spanking Pep Guardiola gave them in the dressing room, and they came out with the sort of belly fire you expect from the best team of their generation. Suddenly the game was stretched (in part because Madrid were pushing more into attack, but also because Xavi and Pedro were drawing out Pepe and Khedira more successfully) leaving Iniesta room to move through the middle.

It was in fact Iniesta who turned the game in Barça’s favor. In the first half, the playmaker forced passes into Messi and Villa only to find them sitting inside a trap. In the second half the tiny balding Spaniard held the ball and ran past the first defensive line of Madrid, then worked in closer proximity to his strikers so they could work the tiki taka. As soon as they found their rhythm the counter attack of Madrid started to look more like desperate clearing rather than pointed reply.

If not for Iker Casillas, Barça would have gone ahead in the second half, and considering the state of Madrid at the time they would probably not have found a way back. Spain’s number one tapped away a lovely chipped ball by Pedro and pushed aside an Iniesta strike destined for the corner.

It looked as if the game would head for extra time, until Madrid managed an odd man rush at the very end of the 90 minutes and di María found himself free to test Pinto from just outside the box. Valdés’s stand-in managed to palm the floating attempt above the bar and it was onto the next 30 minutes. More of the same for the most part. Hard tackling from Madrid but Barcelona with better control, though the chances had dried up.

Sergio "Butterfingers" Ramos drops the Copa del Rey under the party bus

Then just past the 100 minute mark Madrid found their way through the center of the pitch by way of another Pepe tackle. Marcelo swung the ball out to di María who got a toe in front of Alves to lift a far-side cross to the slicked head of Cristiano Ronaldo. The glistening head of the Portugese directed the ball past the unbalanced Pinto — Madrid 1 – 0 Barcelona.

Substitutions were made by both sides in the final fifteen minutes, but the score remained the same, and Real Madrid walked away with their first Copa del Rey in eighteen years. Then, Sergio Ramos dropped it under the party bus on the way back from the airport…


Madrid open up and make a game of it, eventually

April 17, 2011 — by Sean1

Madrid's recycling midfield triangle.

The first of four meetings between these sides produced a magnificent game, but it was always going to be about how Madrid responded to Barcelona. It’s a shame then that Madrid were brought down to ten men and we didn’t see the fullness of Mounrinho’s second-half tactical shift.

Jose deployed a new formation yesterday evening, placing a tight triangle made from two defense midfielders and a center back smack in the middle of Barcelona’s attack. Alonso, Khedira and Pepe–yes, Pepe–rotated defensive and attacking duties amongst themselves, working in tandem to break up the passing game from Iniesta and Xavi, and when they won the ball one of them would spring forward into the attack. Very often it was Pepe, and though it seemed odd at first to see the holding back pushing into the opposing side’s penalty box, it soon became evident that the Portugese was the most dangerous man on the pitch.

Barcelona only once pulled their collapse and expand tactic (where they bring three players in attack close together, then one-touch to each other to lure in defenders before turning or passing beyond their now condensed markers) – usually reserved for moments when the defending team are hesitant to leave their defensive zones. This unique moment in the match speaks precisely to the way Madrid disrupted Barça’s usual attack. The visitors were allowed no time on the ball, and almost always forced to move the ball laterally or backwards. Their chances were rare while Madrid attempted to counter through their speedy wingers.

There were contentious moments of course. Adriano’s yellow in the 9th minute was very soft, and considering he was tasked with containing Ronaldo he’d have to be careful not to pick up a second. Villa went down in what could have been a penalty, though in replay it did look like he dragged his feet and went over before the Casillas made any bit of contact. But Albiol’s red was certainly justified after dragging down Villa in the box – the end of an odd play actually, as it’s rare to see Barça send a long ball up and over the defense, and the bounce found the Madrid defender out of position.

For forty minutes Madrid had to play a man and goal down, and it didn’t seem like they had a chance to come back. But it did feel like Mourinho had planned to lock down the defense before unleashing the team toward the end of the game, and it may have been more a matter of sticking to the game plan than responding to the losing position that caused him to bring on his German playmaker Özil. His addition plus the removal of Alonso for Adebayor injected a bit of danger into the Madrid attack, and even with ten men they started bringing the game to the champions.

In the 81st minute Madrid were given a lifeline, and just maybe they deserved it for the effort they put into the game (and for having had a ball cleared off the line and one struck against the post). They certainly deserved it for the foul, though on first look it didn’t seem to have been much – on closer inspection Alves clearly took out the trailing leg of Marcello. Ronaldo converted as Messi had done from the spot at the other end of the pitch, and 10 mintues of subsequent frantic attacking from both sides produced a number of chances that could’ve spelled heartbreak for either side.

Now the question remains, how will this game effect the meeting between the sides on Wednesday? Were the choices of players and tactics preferred considered just for this 90 minutes, or were there deeper, longer lasting ploys in effect? We can’t wait to see!


El Clásico x4 (part the first)

April 15, 2011 — by Sean

Is this the man to unlock Barça's defense?

There are a number of matches worth watching this weekend: the Manchesters facing off Saturday in the FA Cup semifinal is certainly worth your time, as are Udinese at Napoli and Arsenal hosting Liverpool on Sunday. But these games pale in comparison to the first of four el clásicos taking place over the next three weeks.

Saturday’s match at the Bernabéu won’t have quite the impact on the league table that Madridistas would’ve hoped for at the beginning of the season (specifically after that 5-0 spanking at the Camp Nou), but even with the league gone and the teams meeting in the Copa del Rey final next wednesday you can expect a full-blooded affair. Mourinho went full psychological battle this afternoon when he sat silently next to his assistant during a press conference, refusing to answer any questions himself. A classic tactic by the Portuguese, who prefers to draw attention to himself around big matches rather than leave his players open to excessive scrutiny.

As for fitness, Barcelona sorely miss Puyol and Abidal in defense and have looked vulnerable when teams have pushed past their high pressing midfield. Madrid have a few absentees in Lassana Diarra and Pedro Leon, but they do have Higuain and Benzema fit again, and Adebayor didn’t look half-bad against Spurs mid-week.

So which team is in better form? Through most of the season it was clearly Barcelona, but they’ve seemed a tad shaky of late while Madrid are looking pretty comfortable on the pitch. Madrid have also had an entire season to learn Mourinho’s defensive principles…then again Barça tend to have their way with what seem at the outset to be the most prepared of teams.

The key to a Madrid victory will be to limit Messi’s time with the ball. When his teammates have looked less than otherworldly this season, the little Argentine has stepped up his game to amazing levels. Very often it’s some combination of Iniesta and Xavi that pop open the defenses, with Messi finishing the movement, but Khedira and Alonso will collapse on them very quickly and it’ll be up to Lionel in isolation (and also finding Villa moving off the shoulder of his defender).

For Barcelona to walk away with the win they’ll have to retreat quickly when they lose possession (Madrid have a very quick counter attack) and not give Özil any time on the ball. The young German is a key link between back and front, and with him contained Barça can maintain their high pressing and look to turn the ball over quickly, as they do.

Though this isn’t necessarily the most popular prediction, both in the CultFootball offices and around the world in general, I think we’ll be looking at a 3-1 Madrid win. Truly this game could go either way. Both coaches are great tacticians, and both teams are really a joy to watch, but I’m a little tired of Barcelona’s dominance.


Man U v Chelsea: Champions League Action!

April 12, 2011 — by Sean1

Chelsea travel to Manchester today to play in the only quarterfinal match that remains winnable by either side. The Londoners head into Old Trafford a goal down and perhaps lacking the confidence to steal it back. It doesn’t help matters that their floppy-haired central defender David Luiz is cup-tied and cannot play, nor that the £50M man up front can’t seem to find the back of the net.

United are, well, United. They persevere. Even without key components of their team for long periods this season (Valencia, misfiring Rooney, Ferdinand) they’ve managed to reach the FA Cup semifinal, the quarters of the Champions League, and are sitting 8 points clear at the top of the Prem. Chelsea, who are usually bigger and faster than the teams they come up against, weren’t able to convert their extra inches into goals, and looked a little slow in attack during the first leg.

Speed to goal isn’t something United lack. They have one of the swiftest counter attacks in all of football, with the little pumpkin churning away up front, and Nani and Valencia flying up the wings. More importantly, they have absolute belief in themselves, and it shows in the way they move the ball and force the attack. Chelsea were often hesitant in the first leg, pulling the ball sideways when a more direct attack may have been available, and giving the United defense enough time to readjust. Yes there was the Ramirez challenge that should’ve been a penalty, but you can’t rest all your hopes of winning on a spot kick.

The key to Chelsea victory will be exploiting O’Shea in right back. He’s just coming back from a hamstring injury, and it will be up to Malouda and Cole to make his day difficult (if they can also manage Valencia). We’ll come back at’cha with post-game analysis, but for now here are a few tidbits that will probably have no impact on proceedings:

Only twice in the UEFA Champions League era – Inter Milan’s triumph at Bayern Munich in this season’s last-16 (0-1 home, 3-2 away) and the 1995/96 semi-finals, when Ajax recovered from losing 1-0 at home to Panathinaikos with a 3-0 away triumph – has a team turned round a tie after a home first-leg defeat.

United have progressed in all 13 UEFA competition ties where they won the first game away from home, most recently against AC Milan in last season’s round of 16 (3-2 away, 4-0 home). That includes only one 1-0 away win, at Lille in the 2006/07 round of 16, which preceded another 1-0 victory at Old Trafford.

Chelsea’s quarter-final record in the competition is five wins and one defeat. United have won 11 and lost five at this stage, and went down on away goals to Bayern Munich 12 months ago.