It’s the post-Easter bank holiday in England, so there’s a full slate of Premier League games today. But we choose just the late game in London, and from further south on the Continent another derby from another great European footballing capital. Both featuring Champions League sides (the London one having beat the Lisbon one just recently, in fact) against local rivals that are a bit further down in the table:
Fulham vs Chelsea (3pmET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com): Fulham, in their usual mid-table inconsistency (#11), host local rivals Chelsea (#6). Story at Fulham has been American Clint Dempsey, who by all accounts is having the best season of any American soccer player ever. But as we’ve said before, Fulham is more than the Deuce–we like Costa Rican playmaker Bryan Ruiz as well as young Belgian Moussa Dembele. For Chelsea, the storyline of the season has twisted close to 180˚ (π radians, if you will), with the sacking of Andre-Villas Boas and their resurgence–at least in the Champions League–under iterim Italian Roberto di Matteo. That said, their chances of requalifying for the Champions League are growing hanging by a thread. They’re on 56 points, 3 behind both Newcastle and Spurs–so with a win here, they’d merely pull even in a tie for 4th. It could very well come down to goal differential between these three, with Arsenal seemingly consolidating their claim on 3rd following yesterday’s stunning memorable win over Man City (more on that match to come).
Sporting CP Lisbon vs Benfica (3:15pmET): The heated and long-standing (dating to 1907) the Derby de Lisboa—“also known as Derby Eterno, Derby da Segunda Circular or Derby da Capital”: Sporting Clube de Portugal versus Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Leões contra Águias. Unlike the London derby, this one actually matters for the domestic title race–Benfica is 2nd in Liga Sagres with 59 points, and needs to win to keep pace with 1st place Porto (their other big domestic rivals), who beat 3rd place Braga on Saturday to go up to 63 points (leaving Braga stuck on 58). Benfica’s got a fun squad to watch, and they very well could have pulled off the upset at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday to eliminate Chelsea from the Champions League. From our preview for that matchday:
Ben Shave‘s list of 5 Benfica players to watch, published prior to the 1st leg, consisted of a Brazilian (goalkeeper Artur), a Uruguayan (defender Maxi Pereira), a Spaniard (holding midfielder Javi Garcia), an Argentine (aging semi-legendary playmaker Pablo Aimar), and a Paraguayan (striker Oscar Cardozo). You can add to that list two more young Benfica players we’ve been hearing a lot about: Argentine Nicolás Gaitán and afro’ed Belgian Axel Witsel (attacking midfielders both).
There’s a whole slate of FA Cup 4th Round matches this weekend, kicked off by a match today that is especially interesting for viewers on this side of the pond. Everton hosts Fulham, which means it’s also a faceoff of the two best American players of this generation: Landon Donovan vs. Clint Demspey.
England FA Cup, Everton vs Fulham (3pmET, USA TV: Fox Soccer Channel)
Grant Wahl has a SI column up today previewing the matchup between “the two best American field players of their generation” which is worth reading in its entirety. Some excerpts:
Who’s done better with the national team? Donovan. Who’s had a better European club career? Dempsey. Who’s got more endorsements? Donovan. Who’s been better overall the past 18 months? Dempsey. Who’s done more to grow MLS? Donovan. Who’s got the better chance to be the U.S.’s first European superstar? Dempsey.
Donovan just rejoined Everton earlier this month on another short-term loan from MLS champions LA Galaxy. He had a successful loan spell with the Merseyside club two years ago, for three months at the beginning of 2010. Indeed, Everton wanted to extend the loan, but the LA Galaxy refused, and Everton manager David Moyes would have liked to have bought him–but Donovan’s valuation was too high (£10m) for the cash-strapped Everton.
On the other hand, Dempsey has been in the English Premier Leauge full-time for almost exactly five years. He joined Fulham on a $4million transfer from the New England Revolution during the January 2007 transfer window, and made his Fulham debut on January 20, 2007. He’s since scored 42 goals in 169 appearances for Fulham–setting records for not only most goals by an American in England, but claiming the record for most Fulham goals in the Premier League era (since 1992).
More from Wahl’s SI piece:
Donovan has played well since joining Everton on a short-term loan, often leading the attack and making Toffees fans wish he would stay permanently. Dempsey, meanwhile, is in the best form of his life. Think about this: the only Premier League players with more goals in all competitions this season than Dempsey (15) are Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero — a trio worth a quarter of a billion dollars on the transfer market.
Even then, as recently as last spring, English columnist Georgina Turner wrote a column for SI headlined “Dempsey still underrated Despite star performances at Fulham“–and inevitably Donovan came up:
[Dempsey’s] quality seems forever caught in soccer’s peripheral vision. In part, he has suffered from the constant comparison to Landon Donovan; up against the U.S.’ wholesome, twinkle-eyed star, Dempsey’s brooding demeanor makes him an unlikely poster boy. Donovan’s injury-time goal against Algeria at last summer’s World Cup is seared on to the nation’s memory — even people who aren’t that interested in soccer could probably describe it to you. That it was Dempsey’s run and shot that created the opportunity, leaving the box open and the goalkeeper on the floor, is merely a footnote.
Some related posts from our own archives:
On Donovan: see this post from December 2010, about Donovan deciding to pass on a similar loan deal to Everton last season, and this video of that aforementioned most famous goal in US soccer history.
On Demspey: see this post from last October about him claiming the record for most goals scored in England by an American, and this post from August 2010 speculating about how Dempsey might or might not combine with Belgian youngster Moussa Dembélé. Fulham has since added yet another cook that we like to watch into its attacking midfield kitchen–Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz. We wrote this just over a month ago, for a pre-Christmas edition of “what to watch”:
two [Fulham] players to watch: Costa Rican attacking midfielder Bryan Ruiz, who arrived from FC Twente over the summer, and seems like he’s only now adjusting and fitting in; and Belgian striker Moussa Dembélé, who also came over after success in the Eredivisie, with AZ Alkmaar, the previous summer. We wrote at the time that perhaps Fulham might have to choose between playing him and American Clint Dempsey–but they combined rather well last year, and from what we saw in their draw versus Liverpool a couple weeks ago, Bryan Ruiz is starting to combine well with the two of them.
Who knew there’s a full slate of games in the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1, Spain (Copa del Rey)? Though to tell the truth, not a whole lot of must-see TV today. Actually the one match today that we will try to watch just kicked off, so this will have to be a very quick post:
Udinese-Juventus at Stadio Communale Friuli (12pmET, Fox Soccer Channel, RAI Internazionale, ESPN3 USA, FOX Deportes): 3rd vs 2nd – Udinese with 31 points, two behind Juve, who are in turn a point behind table-toppers Milan. Neither team was really expected to be competing for the Scudetto, but here they are. Udinese had a great season last year, but sold off three of their best players (Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler, and a defender whose name escapes me right now). They failed to get past Arsenal in Champions League qualifying, but that may have been a blessing in disguise, as they’ve been able to concentrate on the domestic league.
Juventus is perhaps even more surprising–still undefeated in the league (9W 6D 0L). We finally got to watch Juve play (thanks to the fact we flew cross-country on JetBlue, and so were captive with GolTV for 10 hours), specifically the rather dramatic Coppa Italia match they played against Bologna. Players to watch on Juve: holding midfielder and Milan transplant Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Paraguayan Marcelo Estigarribia, ageless trequartista Alessandro del Piero; we also like to see Dutchman Eljero Elia, whose been somewhat lost in the shuffle since coming over from Hamburg in August.
Regarding the English fixtures, go over to PoliticalFootballs and see John’s latest post–“This week in: English Football – Christmas Time is Here“. The one match today in England that we might try to catch later on is:
Fulham-Manchester United at Craven Cottage (3pmET, Fox Soccer Channel, FOX Deportes): Fulham has had success against MU at home: 2 wins and a draw in the past 3 seasons, according to the honorable Barry Glendenning (“purveyor of ‘lazy journalism’ and ‘anti-[insert name of your favourite team here]’ bias”) on this past Monday’s Guardian Football Weekly pod. Although he doesn’t rate them to repeat that success today. Raphael Honigstein, on the other hand, said he thinks Fulham could very well earn a point from this match, and cites two players to watch: Costa Rican attacking midfielder Bryan Ruiz, who arrived from FC Twente over the summer, and seems like he’s only now adjusting and fitting in; and Belgian striker Moussa Dembele, who also came over after success in the Eredivisie, with AZ Alkmaar, the previous summer. We wrote at the time that perhaps Fulham might have to choose between playing him and American Clint Dempsey–but they combined rather well last year, and from what we saw in their draw versus Liverpool a couple weeks ago, Bryan Ruiz is starting to combine well with the two of them.
Bonus reason to watch this match: Dempsey is #3 on the list of jid’s players to watch.
As the final matchday of the Europa League group stages approaches Wednesday and Thursday, so does the best chance to see Americans in action overseas on a TV near you. And with some of the Americans’ teams in danger of crashing out of Europa, it may be the last chance for a while. That is, unless your cable package comprehensively covers the Portuguese, Dutch, German and Belgian leagues, in which case you’re really spending way too much for cable.
The two Fox Soccer Channels offer regular viewing of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel in England and occasionally Michael Bradley in the Serie A, and GolTV shows some of the Bundesliga exploits of Steve Cherundolo and the German-Americans in the national team, but to see Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht) or Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City) in a non-streamed format, Europa’s the ticket. Furthermore, with the Manchester teams now surprisingly in the impending mix, there could be some great matches ahead.
Some players, like Onyewu, Kljestan and Jones earned early admission to the knockout phase, as Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht and Schalke 04 each clinched the top spots in their respective groups and secured berths in the last 32 with a game to spare. Others are less likely, but as it stands, everyone’s got a shot, even if mathematical probabilities aren’t as rosy as they might like.
Dempsey, the all-time leading American goal scorer in the Premier League, has been firing for Fulham this season, both domestically and in the Europa League, where he will always be remembered for his chip into the Juventus goal in 2010. But Fulham jeopardized their shot at the round of 32 when they slumped to a 1-0 loss in the 89th minute against group leaders FC Twente, down to 10 men. However, if Krakow lose to or draw with FC Twente, Fulham are through. But Dempsey & Co. are in charge of their own destiny. If they win, second is theirs. If Fulham lose to or draw with Odense and Krakow pull off the upset, however, Krakow takes the spoils.
Friedel has proven integral to the Tottenham first team, but he usually sits out Europa nights. For Spurs to progress, Rubin Kazan would have to lose and Tottenham have to win and overcome a goal difference of 5. Good time to have a proven shot-stopper, so Redknapp may choose to select him against Shamrock Rovers. However, one school of thought says exiting the competition would help Spurs finish in the top 3 or 4 in the Premier League, not playing weekend matches on the heels of Thursday nights in Europe, so perhaps the bald-pated American will again see some rest. Many betting sites tipped Tottenham to win the cup. Few expected they’d fail to pass through the group stage.
Spector and Birmingham may soon be crashing out, unless they’ve got some goals in them. They need first-place Braga to down second-place Brugge, while they themselves beat Maribor and hope it all works out such that they overcome the 4 goal deficit separating them from Brugge. Doable if they’ve got their shooting boots on (and Braga, theirs).
Altidore, whose career has witnessed a resurgence since joining the Dutch champions, will likely lead the line again for AZ Alkmaar, but the team must get a result against group leaders FC Metalist. Win and they clinch second. If they lose and Vienna defeats Malmo, they crash out. Draw and they squeak through, unless Vienna beats Malmo by 7 goals, which one would have to consider a tad unlikely, as they have conceded almost a third more goals than they’ve scored in the group stages. Altidore has 9 goals this season.
Onyewu, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s long-lost shorter, stronger brother, has similarly returned to form with Sporting Lisbon. In fact, he scored the lone goal in last weekend’s 1-0 victory over CD Nacional de Madeira. And with former club PSV Eindhoven still in the Europa mix, he may have a chance to exact some revenge for their lack of faith in him that led to selling him off this past summer.
Schalke 04 midfielder Jermaine Jones has been seeing more first team action and will live to see another Europa day, as the Schalke tops its group and is certain to go through.
Anderlecht is similarly a lock, and barring injury so is Kljestan, who has excelled at Anderlecht this season and must be wondering why he’s seen so little time with the national team. The midfielder has started 23 matches and scored 2 goals this season.
Hannover 96 captain Cherundolo and his team look favorites for second. Win or draw with last place Vorskla and they go through.
Americans guaranteed passage:
Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon, D)
Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, MF)
Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04, MF)
Clint Dempsey (Fulham, MF)
Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96, D)
Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City, D)
Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar, F)
Brad Friedel (Tottenham, GK)
Wednesday, December 14
Besiktas v Stoke City 1:00 PM (DirecTV)
PSG v Atletic Bilbao 1:00 PM (GolTV)
Fulham v Odense 3:00 PM (GolTV)
Thursday, December 15
Hannover 96 v Vorskla Potlava 1:00 PM (GolTV)
Shamrock Rovers v Spurs 1:00 PM (DirecTV)
Atletico Madrid v Stade Rennais 3:00 PM (GolTV)
Birmingham v Maribor 3:00 PM (DirecTV)
Udinese v Celtic 3:00 PM (DirecTV)