Yes, we’re eagerly looking forward to the big-name UEFA Champions League semifinal ties–but don’t overlook UEFA’s other final four. (Indeed, as Zonal_Marking wrote for ESPN today, the Europa League deserves more respect.) Given our growing interest in La Liga beyond the Big Two, yesterday’s quarterfinal results make for an especially interesting Europa League run-in: Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, and Sporting Clube de Portugal advanced to the semifinals, setting up an all-Iberian set of semifinal ties:
1st legs on Thursday April 19: Atlético Madrid-Valencia & Sporting CP-Athletic Bilbao
2nd legs a week later, Thursday April 26: Valencia-Atlético Madrid & Athletic Bilbao-Atlético Madrid
As we wrote earlier in the week, the Athletic Bilbao-Schalke tie was the only was that was pretty much wrapped up after the 1st leg, with Athletic’s 4-2 win in Germany. But the return leg at the legendary San Mames turned out to be a match worth watching (not that we did, unfortunately). It was a game of tit-for-tat: Dutch marksman Klaus-Jan Huntelaar scored, pulling Schalke to within one goal on aggregate–but then Athletic equalized shortly 4 minutes later. And then it happened a second time: Raul scored yet another European goal, but Athletic equalized 3 minutes later. So Athletic wins another tie in convincing fashion, by an aggregate of 6-4. They have to be considered the favorites to win the whole thing, given how much energy they bring to their Europa fixtures.
The other three ties had 2-1 scorelines for the home team in their first legs: Atletico, AZ Alkmaar, and Sporting CP were leading Hannover, Valencia, and Metallist Kharkiv, respectively.
The match at the Mestalla was one we thought might be worth watching–and it was, in some sense, as Valencia quickly and convincingly turned the tie around. They were up 2-0 by 22′–both goals suprisingly by French international center back Adil Rami, off assists from the impressive Algerian youngster Sofiane Feghouli and the always dangerous Roberto Soldado. They added 2 more scores in the 2nd half–Spanish international wingback Jordi Alba scored one, and Pablo Hernandez added the final goal. The 4-0 win gave them a 5-2 win on aggregate.
The other two ties came down to the final minutes. Sporting CP held on for a 1-1 draw in far eastern Ukraine, eliminating Metallist. And in Hannover, Falcao scored a fantastic late goal to seal the deal for Atlético. Via twitter at approx 5pmET:
1-2, Falcao. “What technique! That is absolutely balletic. Mama mia! Colombian coffee house tricks alright, sweet, sweet.”
There’s a full slate of mid-week La Liga fixtures this week–two matches today and the rest of La Liga playing tomorrow. One of today’s matches has Barcelona hosting Granada. It shouldn’t really be much of a contest–Barcelona hasn’t lost at home all season. Perhaps the only reason to watch is that there’s a good chance Lionel Messi will pull even with or even surpass César as Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer.
But it’s also a chance to take a look at Granada’s unique arrangement with Italian club Udinese. Granada essentially serves as a development squad for Udinese, with a large number of Granada’s squad over the past few years arriving on loan from Udinese. From AFootballReport piece on how this came about:
In 2009, Granada CF was a club in crisis, both competitively and financially. The club was on the brink of disappearing, despite a rich 80 year history. Gino Pozzo saw a money-making opportunity that would double as a way to develop Udinese talent, and in July 2009, the two clubs signed a partnership agreement so the majority of Granada’s squad would become Udinese-owned, while the Italian club could also send over its reserves and youngsters.
So what are the benefits for Gino Pozzo and Udinese Calcio? Well, the strategy is to use the exposure Granada gets in the Spanish league to showcase Udinese-owned talent that will, in turn, gain value in the transfer market. With Pozzo’s commitment to investing, Granada only seems likely to improve in the future. And Pozzo’s “buy cheap, gain exposure, sell high” philosophy is already working. Just imagine the possibilities for profit if Granada gets into the top flight in Spain.
The agreement came about via a Spanish football wheeler and dealer named Quique Pina, who took over as Granada’s president in 2009, in that time of crisis. Although he had operated in Spain, he happened to be working for an Italian club at the time. From a Sid Lowe SI column about Granada from last fall:
Pina was a former player (with Mérida), agent, and the owner of the short-lived Ciudad de Murcia — a club that was founded in 1999 and disappeared in 2007 when Pina effectively sold its Second Division place to the owner of Granada 74, which in turn, disappeared in 2009. At the time, Pena was working for Udinese in Italy. When Pina was asked to take over at Granada, the Pozzo family who own Udinese, allowed him to combine both jobs with their blessing. In fact, they supported Pina — and they supported his “other” new club. Really supported.
Udine is a city of 100,000 in the misty terrain between Venice and the Alps. With crowds at the Stadio Friuli typically no more than 17,000, annual gate receipts are equivalent to those trousered by Manchester United after a single match at Old Trafford. According to the erudite football blog, Swiss Ramble, Udinese’s 2009-10 wage bill of €31m compared with €230m and €172m at Internazionale and Milan respectively. Only the club’s ageless talisman, Di Natale, has an annual salary exceeding €1m; Sanchez himself has apparently been taking home around €700,000. Internazionale, Milan and Juventus, meanwhile, all enjoyed annual revenues of over €200m. At €41m, Udinese did not match a single Premier League club. Income from television accounted for €26m; Internazionale’s was €138m.
When Giampaolo Pozzo bought Udinese, 25 years ago, the club was still prey to the maddening, odious debilities that have so retarded the Italian game. A betting scandal earned a points deduction, and relegation. But Pozzo devised a solution that has now secured 16 consecutive seasons in Serie A, and regular European competition.
Udinese built up a network of 50 scouts around the world, concentrated primarily in South America and Africa. They focused especially on youngsters from second-tier nations, and duly found Sanchez as a 16-year-old in Chile. He cost just €2m, but his sale this summer will merely consummate a policy that has already yielded a transfer surplus of €112m over the past decade.
Stars to have used Udinese as a stepping stone include David Pizarro, Asamoah Gyan, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Sulley Muntari, Andrea Dossena, Fabio Quagliarella and Gaetano D’Agostino. Unlike so many clubs with a reputation for grooming young talent, however, Udinese have consolidated their status to the extent that they can now provide Champions League football themselves.
Indeed, although Udinese fell to Arsenal in the qualifying stage and failed to make it to the Champions League group stage, they’ve remarkably repeated their domestic success of last season and are poised to get another shot at European competition. They current sit 4th in Serie A, tied with Napoli (and that only thanks to two late goals last Sunday by Edinson Cavani that salvaged a draw for Napoli in Udine)–despite selling off not only Alexis Sanchez to Barcelona, but Swiss-Turkish midfielder Gökhan Inler to Napoli and Colombian defender Cristian Zapata to Villareal.
Swiss Ramble’s long piece on “Udinese Selling Their Way to the Top“, also from last summer following their impressive performance in Serie A, mentions the Granada component of their business plan:
Udinese have bolstered their strategy by forming a partnership with Granada, a club playing in the Spanish second division, where they loan youngsters that need playing time, such as the Ghanaian Jonathan Mensah. Given the Friuli club’s connections with the South American market, it is no coincidence that they opted for a club in a Spanish speaking country to park their players. In total, Granada currently have an amazing 14 players on loan from Udinese.
In fact, one of the logical results of Udinese’s approach is that they end up having an extremely large squad, so they absolutely need to loan out a vast number of players every season (earning them €3.6 million in 2010). Including the players at Granada, I make the current total 63, though I may well have lost count. This is the sort of “wheeler dealing” that makes Harry Redknapp look like a rank amateur.
That was last season, as Granada fought their way to promotion out of Segunda Division (a fuller account of that promotion, and in fact the story of their promotion from even lower tiers of Spanish football, can be found on yet another treatment of the Pozzo-Pina/Udinese-Granada story, titled “Granada’s Italian job“, on In Bed With Maradona. Another account from the Spanish press, in Madrid-based sports daily AS is headlined “Pina y Pozzo: un tándem para reflotar equipos en crisis“)
This season, the number of players on Granada’s current squad (included below) on loan from Udinese is apparently down to five. But there are six additional players on loan from other clubs, including three from Benfica, another club that Pina has strong ties with. Again from Sid Lowe:
In total, 12 of Granada’s first team squad [last season] were Udinese players. It was good for the Italians because their squad members got playing time, the chance to develop and gain first team experience, while keeping them in the shop window for potential buyers; it was good for Granada because it helped them clinch a top division place at last — and on the cheap.
The relationship has continued. Of those in this year’s squad, Allan Nyom, Odion Ighalo, Jaime Romero, Benítez, Geijo and Diego Mainz are all on loan from Udinese in one capacity or another. Guilherme Siqueira has been signed from them. Meanwhile Pena’s relationship with Benfica has facilitated them bringing in four others from Portugal, three on loan and one on a free transfer. And at the other end of the scale, nine players have been loaned out to Cádiz. Where Pena is employed as the sporting director.
For the details, see Granada’s squad list below. But to bring this back around to today’s match, we quote the opener to that IBWM piece for a nice bit of historical resonance:
October 28th 1973; quite the memorable date in Spanish football history. A young, straggly but immensely gifted Dutchman by the name of Johan Cruyff made his league debut for FC Barcelona, and the effect he’d have on football from that point on, not just in Spain, is one that still shapes the game today. This story, however, is not about the number 14 – it’s about the number 35. Barça’s opponents that day were Granada CF, a team who have spent 35 years away from the Spanish top flight…until now.
Granada’s squad list as of today (according to Wikipedia):
Most attention and eyes will turn to Spurs-ManUtd today, but it’s also quite a derby day. A triple-header of hotly contested derbies with long histories, and turns out all of them are consquential to the standings in their respective leagues:
Tyne-Wear Derby: Newcastle vs. Sunderland (7amET, FSP): #6 in the Premier League hosts #8. Newcastle had been as high as 3rd as late as December, playing an attractive brand of football built around a contingent of Frenchmen, which gave rise to talk of a “French Revolution” on Tyne, led by deep-lying playmaker Yohan Cabaye. Sunderland meanwhile sank to close to the relegation zone, before sacking Steve Bruce and replacing him with Martin O’Neill. They’ve since remarkably resurrected themselves, to the point that they would close the gap with their rivals to only 3 points with an away victory today.
The Basque derby returned last season but it’s still a game worth looking out for. Possibly the friendliest rivalry in the league, whether in San Sebástian or Bilbao the game is guaranteed to sell out with one of the biggest visiting supports in Spain. Expect to see couples, friends and families with different loyalties sitting together. Both stadiums will be a mesh of the red and white of Athletic and the blue and white of the Txuri-urdin, as well as the green, white and red of the Ikurrina (the flag of the Basque Country). All of that being said, the result most certainly matters. The teams may not hate each other but local pride is at stake as Bizkaia takes on Gipuzkoa and both sides want to win it. Next season’s fixture in San Mamés will definitely be worth catching as it will be the last ever Basque derby in Athletic’s historic stadium.
That Sid Lowe SI column, about Athletic’s Copa del Rey match against Mirandes from a few weeks ago, is so good that we can’t resist quoting from it at length:
The symbolism was intense, as it always is at San Mamés. From the approach to the ground along Calle Pozas, narrow and straight, bars all along the way, red and white flags from every balcony — a tunnel toward the ground with Athletic’s badge painted big and bold in on the side, pulling you in; to the hundreds of photographs in black and white, sepia and colour and the stuffed lion that prowls the directors’ box, brought back from Tanzania (Athletic are nicknamed the lions). From the men on the gate in their traditional Basque berets to the careful attention to detail in the club’s museum, nowhere exudes history — or pride, or identity — like Athletic’s stadium.
They call San Mamés ‘The Cathedral,’ in almost reverential respect. Its stands are uneven, crumbling in places, and old-fashioned. They are steep, but close to the pitch. It is a proper soccer ground, like something from a different era; it is also part of the action. It is often said that soccer is like a religion: in many ways it is, and that is not always a good thing. Other times, the phrase is an empty cliché. At Athletic, it feels more just somehow. “Sometimes,” noted Robert Basic in the Basque newspaper El Correo, “you can touch the sentiment.”
The liturgy of San Mamés is unmatched by any arena in the world. There is a hint of it at Anfield, with the sign in the tunnel, the Kop and its hymn, You’ll Never Walk Alone. But even that is not quite the same. This is a community of the faithful, and the communion between players and fans is palpable. Yes, it is easy to get emotional and misty eyed, to exaggerate or see meaning where there is none; but it is hard to visit San Mamés and not feel it. On nights like the Copa del Rey semifinal, it is impossible.
“I had been told about it,” said Marcelo Bielsa, the coach, “but it is one thing to be told, another to experience it. It was wonderful. I had never seen a stadium so involved, so influential, so joyous. It is a lovely sensation when football produces such emotion.”
It’s yet another FIFA day of international friendlies today. The ones involving European teams are getting more interesting, as we’re just a handful of months away from Euro2012 kicking off in Poland/Ukraine, and hence managers are starting to sort out their squads.
Given that, here are a handful of matches that might actually be worth watching (all times ET, with US TV/streaming info via WaPo’s SoccerInsider):
Switzerland vs. Argentina: 2:30pmET, GolTV
Italy vs. USA: 2:30pmET, ESPN2, Galavision, ESPN3.com
Germany vs. France: 2:45pmET, ESPN3.com (tape at 6 p.m. on ESPN Deportes)
England vs. Netherlands: 3pmET, Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Deportes
Spain vs. Venezuela 3:30pmET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com
Here are some reasons why these matches:
Switzerland vs. Argentina: We got interested in the Swiss squad last week–in particular that they’ve got a contingent of ethnic Albanian kids born in Kosovo around the time Yugoslavia was slipping into civil war. We came across this from watching first Napoli–who have not only Swiss captain Gökhan İnler (born in Switzerland to Turkish immigrants) but also Blerim Džemaili (born in Macedonia to Albanian parents)–and then Basel (Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri) in the Champs League last week.
Plus it’s Argentina. Not only Messi, but also Mascherano (also Barcelona), Gago and Lamela (both Roma), Kun Aguero (Man City), and Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid). Though apparently Angel di Maria (also Real Madrid), Javier Pastore (PSG), and Ever Banega (Valencia) are not in the squad this time–the latter because he broke his ankle last week in an “automobile mishap“–he forgot to set the handbrake on his car while filling up with gas.
England-Netherlands: Can’t way we’re all that interested in the England squad (as usual, the English press is hyperventilating about things like who caretaker manager Stuart Pearce has named captain). We’re more interested to see who Holland plays, as a guide to who Bert Marwijk will take to Poland/Ukraine this summer (where his side should be 3rd favorites, behind Germany and of course defending world and Euro champions Spain). In the midfield, will Marwijk stick with the experience and pragmatism of de Jong, van Bommel and Sneijder (although the latter has been struggling with Inter, to the extent that Mr Zonal Marking recently wrote a column for ESPN titled “What’s wrong with Wesley Sneijder?“). Or will he give younger, more dynamic midfielders like Kevin Strootman, Georgino Wijnaldum (both PSV) and Urby Emanuelson (who’s impressed lately playing for Milan) a chance? He has plenty of big-name experienced options up front: Dirk Kuyt, Klaus Huntelaar, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie. From a column about the Oranje in today’s Guardian:
Van Marwijk’s successful route to Poland and Ukraine was founded on the firepower of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (12 in eight games), Van Persie (six in six), Dirk Kuyt (six in nine), Ibrahim Afellay (three in six) and Sneijder (three in eight).
It’s a real shame Affelay tore his ACL back in September, getting ready for his first full campaign with Barcelona (after joining them from PSV last January.) The good news is that he recently resumed training, with the possibility that he may yet appear for Barcelona this spring, and hence receive consideration for the trip to Poland/Ukraine.
The more experienced strikers above are joined on this squad by three younger attacking guys that still play in Eredivisie: Luuk de Jong, Ola John (both Twente), and Luciano Narsingh (Heereveen).
Italy-USA: Balotelli not chosen for Italy–in his place a 20yo kid named Fabio Borini, who’s currently playing for Roma (on loan from Parma?). For the US, one headline we saw was that Klinsmann included yet another son of a US serviceman, who plays for Borussia Dortmund’s reserve squad. See TheShinGuardian comprehensive match preview here.
Germany vs. France: Germany are co-favorites to emerge triumphant in Poland/Ukraine this summer. In fact, some observers think that on recent form they’ve actually nudged ahead of Spain. The lineup is stacked with young dynamic talent. Of course there’s a large contingent of Bayern Munich players (Manuel Neuer, Jérôme Boateng, Thomas Müller, Toni Kroos), even though usual captain Phillip Lahm is apparently sitting this one out. And there’s the two players that have moved to Madrid, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira. In fact, those two and Miroslav Klose are the only three on today’s squad that play outside the Bundesliga. We’re interested in seeing some of those young players, who play outside of Munich: up and coming star Marco Reus (Borussia Mönchengladbach); Marcel Schmelzer and Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund); André Schürrle and Lars Bender (Bayer Leverkeusen). It’s a shame Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Götze is still out with a pelvic injury–hopefully we’ll see him in action this spring (as Dortmund looks to hold off Bayern to repeat as Bundesliga champions) and summer.
We threw in Spain-Venezuela only b/c we’re interested in seeing who Spain plays–beyond the usual suspects. Headlines in the English press last week were that Torres didn’t make the cut for this one (and hence looking unlikely for Euros this summer), but it’s interesting to see that it was not only Soldado that got picked up front, but also this kid Iker Munian (19yo) that plays for Athletic Bilbao. In fact, Athletic has as many players in the squad as Real Madrid (4 apiece)–and no Barcelona or Madrid players among the strikers chosen. The squad:
Victor Valdes (Barcelona), José Manuel Reina (Liverpool), Iker Casillas (Real Madrid); Alvaro Arbeloa (Real Madrid), Carles Puyol(Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Andoni Iraola (Athletic Bilbao), Gerard Piqué (Barcelona), Jordi Alba (Valencia); Javi Martínez (Athletic Bilbao), Xavi (Barcelona), Andrés Iniesta(Barcelona), Cesc Fábregas (Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid),Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Santi Cazorla (Malaga), Thiago Alcântara (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Jesús Navas(Sevilla); Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao), Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao), Juan Mata (Chelsea), Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla), Roberto Soldado (Valencia)
Breakdown by club:
Real Madrid: 4
Athletic Bilbao: 4
Man City: 1
On the other side of the ball, note that Venezuela also features an Athletic Bilbao player (defender Fernando Amorebieta, who was born in Venezuela to Basque parents. From A Football Report piece about Athletic Bilbao’s Basque-only policy:
Here’s the story with Amorebieta. He was born in Venezuela in 1985. His parents, however, were Basque, from a small town in Bizkaia called Iurreta. They were in the Americas on business, and while in Venezuela, Fernando was born. When he was two, the family moved back to Iurreta, and it would be another twenty years before Fernando returned to the country where he was born. What makes Amorebieta able to play for Athletic is the fact that, despite being born in Venezuela, he comes from Basque parents and a Basque family, and he essentially grew up in the Basque Country. Thus, Athletic had no issues with signing him in 1996 to play in the youth system despite not having been born in Spain.
Italy, AC Milan vs. Juventus, 2:30pmET (FSC, ESPN3.com): Could be the match that decides the Scudetto. These two are the top of the Serie A table, separated by just a point (although Juve has a game in hand). Can La Vecchia Signora go into San Siro and beat the defending champions? A prominent subplot: this is aging midfielder Andrea Pirlo‘s return to Milan, to play against the club where he spent a decade as the premier deep-lying playmaker in Serie A (and perhaps in the world).
England, Arsenal vs. Spurs 8:30amET (FSC): The North London Derby–and for the first time in many years, Spurs are widely acknowledged to have the superior squad, and are favored to win on Arsenal’s home ground. But Spurs supporter PoliticalFootballs isn’t buying it. An excerpt from his match preview:
I am not so optimistic about Tottenham’s chances, neither for this weekend or the following week’s match against United. For too long, Spurs have looked good and then collapsed – it seems inevitable that it will happen again this year. With their 10 point advantage over Arsenal, they have a great opportunity to finish above them for the first time since the 1994/5 season, having never done so since Arsene Wenger became the Gunners’ manager. Tottenham have also not done the double (beat them home and away) over their neighbours since 1992/3 – and even then, the match at Highbury was against a makeshift team, as the home side were looking ahead to the FA Cup final the following week.
Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven vs. Feyenoord 8:30amET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): #1 in the Eredivisie table vs #5, separated by only 4 points (with AZ Alkmaar, Heerenveen and Twente in between, and Ajax in 6th a point behind Feyenoord). Also a chance to see some young Dutch internationals that are still playing in the home country: from PSV defender Erik Pieters and midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman are in the Dutch squad that will be playing England on Wednesday, as is Feyenoord central defender Ron Vlaar. The one to watch is deep-lying midfielder Strootman, who has been called the future of the Dutch midfield.
Germany, Bayern Munich vs. Schalke 9:30amET (ESPN3.com): #3 hosts #4 in the Bundesliga table. Bayern is in somewhat of a crisis, after slipping behind both Borussias in the table, and then losing at Basel in the Champions League last Wednesday. They’ll need to win at home to avoid falling further into crisis–and to avoid falling further behind the Borussias.
Spain, Rayo Vallecano vs. Real Madrid 10amET (ESPN3.com, tape at 5 p.m. on ESPN Deportes): A Madrid derby of sorts–Rayo Vallecano is located in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid, where they play at the 15,500-capacity Campo de Futbol de Vallecas. Rayo Vallecano just got back to the first division this season, after spending most of the past decade in Segunda Division and Segunda Division B. But they’re currently just two points off that all-important 4th place, and Sid Lowe cited them as a team that’s worth watching in a recent column:
Look at La Liga now and few teams are exciting; few look genuinely good; fewer still have achieved any sort of consistency. Rayo Vallecano are one (five wins in seven and great to watch), Athletic Bilbao another (they lost three of their first four but just three in 19 since), improving Atlético Madrid perhaps a third. A case can be made for Espanyol. And then?
England Carling Cup, Liverpool vs. Cardiff City 11amET (FSC): Liverpool’s first time back at Wembley since the 1996 FA Cup final (a match that’s remembered more for the Spice Boys’ pre-match white Armani suits than for the match itself).
Italy, Napoli vs. Inter Milan 2:30pmET FSC, ESPN3.com: Another chance to watch perhaps the most exciting and dynamic attack in Europe–Napoli’s front line of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik, supported by Inler and Gargano in the center of the midfield, Zuniga and Maggio on the wings. (Note that Maggio is the only Italian among those, and note the strong South American contingent: Cavani and Gargano are Uruguayan, while Lavezzi is Argentine.)
Spain, Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona 3:30pmET (GolTV): Might Barca drop yet more points at the Estadio Vicente Calderón? Atletico certainly has more to play for, as they’ve climbed back into contention for that last Champions League spot, while Barcelona has practically given up any chance of catching Real Madrid for the La Liga title–due to struggles on the road–and has consequently shifted their focus and energies on the Champions League campaign. We looked at Atletico’s squad–and their recently installed manager, former Atletico player (and Argentine international) Diego Simeone–in this post a month ago.
There’s a whole slate of FA Cup matches in England, including Sunderland-Arsenal (see PoliticalFootballs’ most recent post for a full list of those fixtures), and domestic matches in Germany, Italy, etc. But we’re finding ourselves getting increasingly fascinated by Spanish football beyond the big two.
So we’ve picked out a couple matches to focus on this weekend, involving 4 of the 14 teams that have a shot at finishing 4th in La Liga and claiming a Champions League spot for next fall: Getafe-Espanyol (which is actually a Madrid vs Barcelona matchup), and a north vs south battle in Athletic Bilbao-Malaga.
(For a full list of matches televised in the US this weekend see here, or go to livesoccertv.com.)
Saturday, Feb 18
La Liga, Getafe-Espanyol 12pmET (ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): Our continuing quest to go beyond the big two in Spain. Indeed, these two clubs are severely overshadowed in their hometowns by those big two–Espanyol by their Catalan rivals Barcelona, Getafe by Real (and Atlético) Madrid. But this season finds both teams in what Sid Lowe has called this season’s “slow bicycle race for La Liga’s final Champions League spot“: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia are almost sure to finish 1-2-3, and there’s an entire peloton of teams jockeying for 4th place. Espanayol is in 5th place, even with Levante (Valencia’s 2nd team!) at 32 points–but that’s only 5 points more than 12th place Getafe (and 9 points more than 18th place Racing Santander!). See below for the full La Liga table.
21yo Portuguese Rui Fonte, who came up with Sporting CP and spent some time in North London (“Apt both on the wing or as a forward, some have even gone as far as comparing him to the legendary Luis Figo for his impressive performances in Portugal’s U21 side”)
19yo Frenchman Thievy Bifouma, who has “helped fill the void left by the outgoing Osvaldo [who Espanoyol sold to Roma] by partnering Alvaro Vazquez and Vladimir Weiss in the Catalan’s exubertant, Champions League-chasing strikeforce…Deployed mainly on the left by Pochettino, Thievy’s tireless workrate and power on the ball has gone down well with the club’s faithful, who could well be watching a golden generation of talent should the club be able to fend off the inevitable interest that will come their way.”
19yo Brazilian Philippe Coutinho: “On the last day of the winter transfer window, Espanyol pulled off a major coup by sealing the loan signing of Inter’s teenage playmaker Phillippe Coutinho, with an option to buy included. …At just 18, the former Vasco man debuted in the Brazilian national team, and is now at the perfect club to grind out his talent and help re-establish him as one of the stars of tomorrow.”
Note also that the other two members of Espanyol’s strikeforce mentioned above are youngsters as well: Vladimír Weiss is a 22yo Slovakian on loan from Manchester City, and Álvaro Vázquez is a 20yo Catalan who came up through Espanyol’s youth system (and has appeared for Spain’s U20 and U21 teams). The squad also contains another young player on loan from Milan: 22yo left back Dídac Vilà, who AC Milan loaned back to Espanyol for this season after Milan purchased him during the January 2011 transfer window. He’s another Catalan product of Espanyol’s youth system–aside from spending last spring with Milan, he’s been with Espanyol since he was 10 years old.
La Liga, Athletic Bilbao-Malaga (10amET, DirecTV): Two more teams involved in that slow bicycle race, separated by just a point in the table. Malaga travels from the south coast to the moutainous north, to play in the Basque cathedral of football–San Mames.
England FA Cup, Sunderland-Arsenal noon FSC: After Wednesday’s horror show in Milan, Arsenal has to travel up north to take on Sunderland for the 2nd weekend in a row. They salvaged a come-from-behind victory last weekend courtesy of an extra-time score from Thierry Henry. But the Frenchman is on his way back to this side of the Atlantic, to rejoin the New York Red Bulls after the MLS team turned down Wenger’s request to extend Henry’s loan. Will Arsenal pull themselves together after Wednesday? Or does Arsenal’s implode like last season, but this time in February?
A whole gaggle of interesting matches to watch this weekend. We’ve chosen a handful each on Saturday and Sunday, including the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations, a couple each from the big leagues (Premier League, including Chelsea-ManUtd; Serie A, highlighted by AC Milan-Napoli; La Liga–the one we’re most interested in is Atletico Madrid-Valencia), plus a few wild cards (e.g., a Futsal Euro match Saturday night and East Bengal-Mohun Bagun, live from Kolkata). And there’s also the small matter of a Northeast (US) derby of sorts Sunday night in Indianapolis.
Check back in over the weekend for additional preview notes on these matches. But since our first selection kicks off shortly…
Germany, Nürnberg-Borussia Dortmund (2:30pmET GolTV): Just for something to watch today, and for a Bundesliga match. Plus Dortmund is one of the teams we like to watch–and they’re doing very well again this season in the league: joint top of Bundesliga with Bayern and Schalke.
(Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the German national team is pretty much Bayern Munich, note that Bender, fellow midfielder Kevin Großkreutz, Hummels and of course Mario Götze have all made appearances for the German national team–as has Marco Reus, who will be coming over to Dortmund this summer after a breakout season at the other Borussia.)
England, Arsenal-Blackburn 8 a.m. ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com: Gunners achieved 1 point from their 4 January league fixtures–and that a scoreless draw against lowly Bolton. This weekend they play even lower Blackburn. But let’s not forget Arsenal lost at Blackburn back in September, and that Arsene has maybe lost the stadium. Groundhog Day for Arsenal?
African Cup quarterfinal, Zambia-Sudan (11amET, Al Jazeera Sports USA – DISH Network 601): The first AfCON2012 quarterfinal match features two teams that weren’t widely expected to reach the knockout stage.
Al-Smith’s blog post opens with the line: “A common stat you may have heard in the past few days: the last time Sudan won the African Cup was 42 years ago, 1970” and a story about Sudanese club Al Hilal playing Canon Yaounde in the Cameroon capital in a 1987 African Champions Cup semifinal, after which
a six-year old got his wish and shook hands with the legendary Sudanese forward Ali Gagarin. Gagarin was shocked when he met the little boy, not because he was not aware of his fame, but at the sheer awe in the boy’s eyes.
Gagarin, in a recent interview, recalls the incident: “I was told that a young man came to the stadium and asked for the jersey of Gagarin and said ‘I want the number 9 jersey of Gagarin.’ Do you know who is that young man today?”
The boy would later become Africa’s greatest footballer. The boy was Samuel Eto’o.
The other quarterfinal scheduled for today features one of the co-favorites versus one of the co-hosts: Ivory Coast-Equatorial Guinea (2pmET, also Al Jazeera Sports USA). For some pre-game reading on this one, see see Jonathan Wilson’s column in the Guardian: “Kily keen to upset the odds for Equatorial Guinea against Ivory Coast: The co-hosts’ right-back usually plays in the Spanish fourth division but on Saturday he will face the much-fancied Ivory Coast in the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals”
Spain, Athletic Bilbao-Espanyol (12pmET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): We have been trying to look beyond the big two in Spain. This is an interesting match not only because it’s Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao, but because it’s an important match for the league standings. Espanayol is in 5th place with 31 points, Athletic hot on their heels in 6th place with 29 points. Here’s the top half of the table (columns: played, won, lost, draws, goals for, goals against, goal differential, points):
Futsal Euro, Ukraine-Spain (6pmET GolTV): The 2012 Futsal European championships are taking place in Croatia. Who knew? The group stage is ending this weekend, with the quarterfinals Monday and Tuesday, the semifinals Thursday, and the final next Saturday.
Sunday Feb 5
Italy, Roma-Inter Milan or AC Milan-Napoli (both 9amET, both on ESPN3.com; Milan-Napoli also on Fox Soccer Plus): Two big-club clashes in Serie A. Roma, Inter and Napoli are all likely out of contention for the Scudetto, but are aiming for a spot in Europe. Milan is in 2nd, just a point behind still-undefeated Juventus–but they’ve been struggling lately, including a loss to Lazio mid-week. The table:
England, Chelsea-Manchester United (11amET, Fox main network): The big one this weekend in England. ManUtd are trying to keep pace with City at the top of the table, while Chelsea are seeking to hold on 4th (and that crucial Champions League spot). See here for squad sheets, as well as John Ashdown’s quick match preview:
This is second against fourth in the Premier League, a clash between two sides who have carved up the last seven titles between them, but somehow it does not feel like it. United have won eight of their last 10 fixtures in the league but are grinding out results in their pursuit of Manchester City. Chelsea, meanwhile, stumble and stutter in their attempt to hold on to the final Champions League spot. Neutrals must hope that at least one of these big beasts can rediscover their mojo come Sunday tea-time.
Indeed, Chelsea have often seemed on the verge of crisis throughout the season–whether due to grumbling about new manager Andre Vilas-Boas’s tactics or squad selection, speculation about whether Fernando Torres will ever score again, or controversy about captain John Terry. Here was our Chelsea observer The Cunning Linguist with some observations he offered up back on Boxing Day:
I think part of the problem with Torres is the obvious pace he’s lost but the other part is the way he’s being utilized and the infrequency. When at the kop he looked to be picking the ball up further up field from long balls and such but now he’s coming back further to build play given the tight band of barca’s that is being employed; obviously Chelsea’s personnel doesn’t warrant the barca style. The odd part is that drogba seems to be getting faster and a bit more creative as he gets older; hat’s off to the old boy. let’s see what drogba’s absence for the African cup in jan means; can’t believe Torres is done. Saw some decent stuff from him in the game; movement, control, etc. There was a great chest ball and shot that didn’t do much but it was a damn neat piece of skill.
Until avb figures out what the new Chelsea style is, it’ll be mourinho against good teams and experiments against lesser quality teams. For me the real story is mikel’s loss of favor; romeu’s the future. Lampard’s done; feel bad it has go go down this way but that’s that.
African Cup of Nations quarterfinals, Gabon-Mali 11amET and Ghana-Tunisia 2pmET: Take a look at The Hard Tackle’s match previews. Looking ahead at the schedule, both semifinals will be Wednesday, with the final next Sunday in Libreville.
Spain, Atletico Madrid-Valencia (3:30pmET ESPN3.com): As we wrote last weekend, Atletico salvaged their season after turning to Diego Simeone in December. They’re up to 7th in the table, and challenging for a spot in Europe is not out of the question. Valencia is trying to solidify its hold on yet another #3 finish–but they’ve also got a big Copa del Rey clash coming up mid-week–the 2nd leg of their semifinal against Barcelona, following the 1-1 draw at the Mestalla last Wednesday.
USA (NFL), Super Bowl – NY Giants-New England Patriots (6:30pmET): See Political Footballs’ match preview here.
With Arsenal currently sitting 7th in the Premier League table, it’s now truly inevitable that Robin van Persie will choose a new club come summertime, barring some miracle. But because it seems so predestined, the notion doesn’t trigger anxiety levels of Fabregas-ian proportions from summers past, where you just really didn’t know what was going to happen. Even with Samir Nasri, one thought Arsenal might just take the financial hit and force the Frenchman to stick around, because surely Wenger wouldn’t let two of his three/four best players go at the last possible moment, would he?
Anyhow, just as Robin’s departure seems inevitable, so too does speculation of the destination club. Cue the inevitable stories of van Persie to Barcelona.
Van Persie currently ranks among the most in-form strikers in the world. It’s only natural that he be linked to the best clubs in the world. Money is not the motivating factor. What Robin wants is to win trophies and play with other players of his caliber. Even the most ardent Arsenal supporter will admit that van Persie is in his own league. Wilshere could get there, but certainly not while he’s out for the season.
With talk of Barcelona being the best team of this generation, obviously lazy journalists make “Van Persie to Barcelona” their go-to. They’ve already got the templates, having been through the whole business before with Henry, who left for similar reasons. And they can naturally cut-and-paste parts from the Fabregas template. (Hell, even Alex Hleb!) Despite not currently topping their own league, Barcelona is the best team is the world at present. So, even without a shred of supporting evidence, the link makes sense.
Why player, club and every onlooker might think it’s a good fit is too obvious to really go into any further.
The real question (to me) is: Would van Persie do well at Barcelona? Would he be the preferred starter?
If not, if he knows he will only provide cover for the main striker, utilized mostly as an impact sub, would he choose Barça? (Impact subs get CL winner’s medals, too…)
Van Persie comes from a system not entirely different from the Catalan way, but so did Henry, and that wasn’t exactly an unqualified success. David Villa had played with the midfield maestros on the national team, which made him less of a risk, but Ibrahimovic never had and didn’t mesh especially well, whereas Eto’o did.
Individual chemistry with the team is the unknown and unknowable but crucial factor towards determining an import striker’s success at Barcelona.
Any thoughts would be appreciated. Honestly, I really don’t know how it would pan out. Van Persie would certainly kill to play with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas (again), but I find it hard to believe he’d settle for a spot on the bench.
I also find it unlikely he’d move to another club in England, so who else does it leave? AC Milan? Perhaps next year’s coach at Real Madrid can come up with a new hunter-animal analogy for him?
To be fair to both Henry and van Persie, the comparison with Henry is not entirely like-to-like. Many often cite age as a factor with Barcelona-era Henry, but Henry was only a year older than van Persie will be in the summer. (Henry turned 30 in mid-August 2007; van Persie turns 29 this August.) It really was more that Henry was not at his peak, whereas van Persie is most definitely enjoying his peak and may stay there for a few years to come. (He could even get better with excellent through-pass service, however there was no mistaking the gray hairs in Wednesday’s match against Bolton.) With Robin, it has always come down to his injury status. He’s never lacked the finish, simply the fitness.
Henry in his peak combined with the current-day Barcelona squad would have been incredible to behold. God, I wish that had happened. Except that they were all wearing the Red and White. (And except for the whingeing, whining, diving Dani Alves—Barcelona can keep him. Hmm, I just realized that if you take the “an” out of Dani and “Al” out of Alves, you’re left with “Dives.” Sounds about right.)