Friday, April 17, 2009

Newcastle United Need Professional Help

Newcastle United are like a psychiatric patient. Collectively, the club is like a would be Hollywood actor who thinks just one little break is all he needs to blow up big; just one more piece of cosmetic surgery and then Spielberg will come calling. The new manager -- former player and completely inexperienced manager, Alan Shearer -- will do no better over the short term than former manager Joe Kinnear. There is no quick fix.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

One team to rule them all

Going in to the weekend, there were five teams with a chance to win the league: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Aston Villa. Really, though, practically everyone on the planet ASSUMED Manchester would win it all, and the fight would be who would place 2, 3 and 4. These spots are significant as the top four play in the Champions League tournament next season -- the most prestigous and lucrative tournament there is. Fifth place gets to play in the second best tournament, the UEFA cup. Of course Manchester would win. They looked unstoppable. They've got the best forwards (Ronaldo and Rooney); the best veteran players in the center of the pitch (Scholes and Giggs); the best defenders (Ferdinand and Vidic); and a keeper who hasn't let in goals for what seems like months. It's funny how football goes, though. Everything we assumed has been turned upside down by four games.

Manchester lost two in a row. They got KILLED by Liverpool and then lost to a scrappy Fulham outfit that came ready to play. Liverpool were the best team in the world for three games in a row: dismantling Real Madrid, sticking it to Manchester, and thrashing Aston Villa, 5-0 today. Arsenal took care of business, and might have an outside shot. Way, way outside. Chelsea lost to Spurs, confirming the blues as pretenders to the throne. I don't see any way Chelsea can reclaim the level they had a couple of years ago. Aston Villa gave it their all, but they are simply a second best team. How will it all end? I'd love to know, but cannot. That's the beauty of the game. Next week everything may change again.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rafa as Don Corleone? More like Fredo

There is a nice image in the Sun today showing Rafa Benitez, the manager of Liverpool, in black and white as if he were Marlon Brando's Don Corleone, the head of a crime family. As creative as the image is, I don't see the analogy. To me, Rafa is hanging by a thread. He has Torres and Gerrard to score and create goals, and Carragher to hold the back four in defence together. Liverpool plays at Anfield, of course, one of the hardest grounds in England in which to get points. It's not that Rafa is a bad manager. He's just not a great manager.

His outbursts at the press, at the owners of Liverpool football club, at the Football Association, and at Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, reflect frustration. I'm sure Rafa wants to take his club to the next level. He just doesn't know how. Very few people would. Compare Chelsea -- they have had 3 managers in 3 years with the same world class players. Chelsea are still great, but they are not at the highest level. Don Corleone, by contrast, knew exactly what he was doing. A better analogy for Rafa is Corleone's milquetoast and disrespected son, Fredo.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beckham suits the Italian game

It is impossible for one football player to dominate a game when there are 10 other professionals on the pitch. Lots of players have great pace and acceleration; lots of players have the lungs to run north, south, east and west for ninety minutes. Those basic physical attributes are a given. Supporters and commentators talk about something called "quality" or "class." Great -- truly great -- players bring quality to the game. To me, that is two or three decisions over the course of the game. Maybe that is a pass, or a cross, or finish -- banging the ball into the back of the net. It is those moments that separate the good from the great. And the supermen, the Eric Cantonas, the Maradonas, the Zidanes, the Gerrards, they do it in the biggest games at the most crucial time. Which brings me to Beckham. Yes, he's not as fast as he once may have been. But that was never his game. What he brings is intelligence, the unexpected pass, the perfectly weighted, curling corner. Not every touch is creative, of course. But the moments are there now that he plays at Milan.

The Galaxy was not right for Beckham's play. The Italian game is clinical: each player on that pitch knows how to hold on to the ball. The ball moves in short passing sequences up the field; sometimes it passes back, the attack builds again from a new angle. In the Italian game, each time holds on to the ball for a long period of time. In contrast, the MLS game is more up and down. The ball bounces around between the teams; there is a more scrum like quality to the play. Essentially, the players are less skilled. They are not unskilled and they are not slow. But they do not play like an Italian team. As such, the quality that Beckham brings -- those two or three passes of quality -- gets lost in the noise.

Beckham is not a better player than he was six months ago. He's playing a different game.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another year, another win in Italy

I'm thrilled that Arsenal beat Roma. As everyone points out, Arsenal are a young, talented team; each time they achieve a great win, we fill with expectation that this team will rise to be one of the best. Yet . . . I have my doubts. After the win, the manager -- Arsene Wenger -- praised the mental strength of the team. He's said this before. It was one year ago in the Champions League that Aresenal went to the San Siro stadium and took on A.C. Milan. Cesc Fabregas scored a wonderful goal, and Arsenal won. (By the way, what bothers me is that in all the replays of the goal, all that is shown is Fabregas striking the ball and it going in -- the replays ignore the wonderful move Fabregas made to dispossess the Milan defender, touch the ball twice, AND THEN bang it in the back of the net.)

I remember jumping up and down when the Gunners beat AC Milan. But they could not keep up the level of play in the games that followed. So now Aresenal have done it again. They've gone to Rome and beat another legendary Italian team. I hope the weeks that come do not mirror what happened in 2009.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Why fans love Robbie Keane

Robbie Keane left Spurs and joined Liverpool. After 6 months of frustration and few goals, he returned to Spurs. Yet he is loved by all, and his contributions back at White Hart Lane are celebrated and analyzed and the subject of headlines. Fans love him because they think he is a fan as well. He seems like he is. His boyhood team was Liverpool, and fans love the fact that he even had a boyhood team -- like them -- and that he is not some sort of football playing demigod or robot. It's a connection like that provides the benefit of the doubt. I'm the same way. I want Keane to succeed; I want him to win and be happy and bring glory to Spurs. Not because he's that stylish. It's because he's a fan.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Foreign Ownership

Are Liverpool and Manchester United the clubs they once were? I think no. Clubs are not just a bottom line, but an emotional connection that gets passed on from generation to generation. Clubs are like reputations. You can't build them in a day, but you can destroy them in an instant. Ownership from beyond the British Isles -- beyond Europe even -- takes something away. It replaces the club with a brand. And then you get . . . the LA Galaxy and their ilk.