The Interlull is upon us. Just when the domestic and Champions leagues are hurtling towards their conclusions, getting us all hot and bothered…they take a break so the best players can fly all over the world to risk injury playing for their respective national teams in largely meaningless international games. (Full disclosure: we picked up the “Interlull” terminology from the indispensable Arseblog.)
That said, some of these games aren’t completely meaningless–included on this weekend’s are a handful of Euro 2012 and African Cup qualifiers featuring some nations/players we like to watch. And some of the meaningless international friendlies shouldn’t be completely uninteresting–particularly USA hosting Argentina at the (New) Meadowlands (Saturday), Brazil playing Scotland at the Emirates (Sunday), and Ghana playing England at Wembley (Tuesday).
But you’ll have to come back for our previews of the latter matches. There are so many fixtures (over 100) spread out over so many days (Friday thru Tuesday) that we’ve been forced to split up this weekend’s viewing guide into a multi-installment day-by-day affair. As in the past, we’ve relied upon WaPo’s Soccer Insider for a complete listing of matches, times, and US television options. Here our choices for…
Friday, March 25
For the Dutch, no Arjen Robben nor Huntelaar due to injuries. But still plenty of talent to watch in midfield, on the wings, and up front: Schneijder, van der Vaart, van Persie, Kuyt, Elia, Affelay. Plus watch for up-and-coming right wingback Gregory van der Wiel. Barcelona was said to be keeping an eye on him in case they were unable to resign Dani Alves. Now that Alves has turned his back on a potential big money transfer to Man City and signed on for a few more seasons in Catalonia, Man City has apparently shifted their focus to van der Wiel.
We’re really not sure who to watch for on the current Hungarian squad–but after watching this match we should know for the return fixture in Amsterdam on Tuesday (see below).
Chelsea ran riot in Copenhagen this evening, winning 2-0 with Nicolas Anelka scoring on both sides of the half. The west londoners got just the opposition they needed to turn their sad form around, with the bald Frenchman showing real class against a side who looked very much like they hadn’t played in two months. Torres wasn’t as lucky, though he’s manufacturing chances. Here’s a good summation of his current condition by the guardian liveblog:
59 min: Torres picks the ball up down the right and cuts inside. For a moment he’s free in the box, one on one with the keeper, but hesitates and allows Antonsson to come back at him. Torres drops a shoulder and makes himself some more space, eventually getting a shot away, but the keeper’s got time to position himself well and gets behind it. It’s become a glaring confidence issue, this, but he’s getting so many openings surely a goal isn’t long in coming, and then we can forget all about it.
In Lyon, once and future king Karim Benzema broke the deadlock after having been on the field for less than a minute. After a terribly boring first half which saw a lot of niggling fouls interrupt play around midfield, Madrid came out in the second half flying. Within five minutes they’d hit the woodwork twice (off a Ronaldo dipper and then a lofted header by Sergio Ramos) though they never found any real fluidity. Often, the players in white found themselves isolated on the attack, and it was chaos more than tactics that gave Benzema the chance to score against his old side.
The substitute respectfully held his celebration in front of a crowd that had just seconds before politely applauded his return to the pitch, and the goal took the wind out of the stadium for a few minutes. Soon the drums started back up and Les Gones started to push. While it was Michel Bastos and Aly Cissokho combining well up the left in the first half, the sturdy pair of Gourcoff and Toulalan pushed the ball wide while holding the center in the desperate buildup to the end—and eventually the home side got their chance. Off a set piece in the 83′, centerback Cris, a problem for Madrid all night, rose to head the ball down onto the waiting foot of Senegalese-Frenchman Bafetimbi Gomis.
Madrid played a very defensive game tonight, only showing themselves for moments. One wonders though, can they really turn it on when they need to?
As for Chelsea, they’re sure to get through to the next stage of the cup. If only they could play a few more games outside the country they may find their championship form again.
First knockout round matches continue on Tuesday with Real Madrid visiting the very well run french side Olympique Lyonnais (richest club in the country, ‘natch), while the slumping Blues from London head to Denmark to meet FC København (the first Danish side to play in this phase of the cup).
Under normal conditions Chelsea would be heavy favorites, but their recent run of form makes every match a toss-up. The Løverne haven’t played a match in two months, though they currently sit 19 points clear at the top of the Danish Super League. You’d think rust could play a problem, but that wasn’t the case for Shaktar when they visited Rome last week on the same time off.
Chelsea has most recently, well, sucked. They are a strong side with fantastic players, but they haven’t had that killer edge of late—and this from the team who started the season so strongly it seemed they were a lock for the title. Maybe this is the match Torres and co. need to settle back into a good run of form.
The real match to watch will be Lyon v Madrid. Madrid have been the losing side in the team’s last three trips to France’s second city, though up until now it wasn’t Mr Mourinho holding the reins. Les Gones are a side to be admired. A selling side, they won’t hold onto young talent when the big boys of Europe crack open their checkbooks, and they certainly won’t buy expensive older players, preferring to scout young talent and develop it before moving them on for a big payday.
The system works: the team has been getting further in the Champions League every year, while managing to win seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2001 and 2008. Some players you may have heard of who moved on from the french side? Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Karim Benzema, and Éric Abidal to name a few.
Ligue 1’s player of the year Lisandro Lopez is likely to miss the match due to injury, though attacking midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, and preferred right wing Clément Grenier are back in for the Frenchmen. Though that may not be enough to hold back the flow of Madrid’s attack. Franco’s choice hasn’t been piling in goals at their early season rate, and they had a few stumbles before the new year, but this is just about the time Jose has his teams hitting their fullest stride. With Adebayor, Kaka, Ronaldo, Ozil, and Di Maria pushing forward, fed by Alonso from deep and Marcelo and Ramos on the wings, it’s surely only a matter of time before the special one’s system clicks into full-gear.
Lyon could play a deep lying game and seek a counter-attacking chance when it materializes, but let’s hope it’s an open game and we get to see some of the French side’s class on display too.