31 July 2010

On Fabio Aurelio - for, thankfully, not the last time

Yawn, yet another free transfer...

Seeing Fabio Aurelio re-sign with Liverpool is wonderful, welcome news. And not only because it makes the goodbye post I wrote in May moot – although the video still makes for fantastic viewing.

He's not the end-all, be-all if Insua eventually departs (despite apparent confirmation earlier in the week, it seems the deal still isn't done). More depth at the position remains necessary. It's announced as a two-year deal, instead of the pay-for-play contract offered before Benitez left, which inevitably worries given Fabio's injury record. The new head of the medical staff, Peter Brunker, has his work cut out for him. Regardless, it's a fantastic bit of business, with a lot of credit going to Hodgson if the official site's to be believed. After all, he is an established left back, which Liverpool's clearly lacking.

On his day and when fit, Aurelio is, hands down, one of the best left backs in the league. His crossing and free kicks are superlative, his defending and positioning almost always spot on. Experienced, clever, and classy. I simply love watching the man play football. And, once again, he's ours.

Yes, I worry about his injury record. Yes, he's soon to be 31, and a two-year contract is a gamble if money's not based on appearances. But I couldn't be happier to see him back in a red shirt, which will hopefully happen tomorrow as he's traveled to Germany for the friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach. If it comes down to gambling on Aurelio or the likes of Luke Young or Konchesky, to name two who've been heavily rumored, I'll take Aurelio every single day of the week.

And yes, to close, I'll take this opportunity to re-link the video made for his goodbye post. Every single one of those four goals is worth watching over and over and over. Here's hoping we see many more.

29 July 2010

Liverpool 2-0 Rabotnicki

Kelly Skrtel Kyrgiakos Agger
Amoo Lucas Spearing Jovanovic

Ngog 18' 58'

Competitive club football, oh how I've missed you. And Liverpool winning. Yeah, I've missed that too.

So, after a comfortable 2-0 away win, maybe Hodgson was publicly downplaying expectations in yesterday's press conference?

Don't get me wrong; a victory in Europa League qualifiers against last year's Macedonian league second-place finishers won't go into the annals of amazing European heroics. But it's a win, and the team looked far better than in either preseason friendly.

After an initial, unsurprising feeling-out period, it was a mistake by Rabotnicki's defense which allowed Ngog to pick up possession behind the backline, sweetly control around the keeper, and slot in. But from there, Liverpool managed proceedings. While Rabotnicki saw more of the ball than expected, the midfield of Lucas and Spearing and the pairing of Kyrgiakos and Skrtel refused to allow them possession anywhere near dangerous territory. I don't think they had a shot inside 25 yards.

Liverpool never dominated as we'd hope against lesser opposition (okay, maybe abysmal opposition), but Liverpool were never going to dominate in late July with this XI, no matter the opposition. There were few chances at goal, but Ngog efficiently took both of his, adding a second 13 minutes after the interval in style, exquisitely sweeping home Kelly's cross with a side-footed volley. From there, Liverpool were content to stifle, poke, and prod, with Darby, Dalla Valle, and Eccleston on as substitutes, and it sees them take a 2-0 lead back to Anfield.

Outside of Ngog's two well-taken goals, there were no standout performers, but it was a good team performance, and that's far more warmly welcomed at this stage of the season. As said above, I was most impressed with the central midfield and defense: Lucas putting in a shift worthy of the armband and Spearing mopping up well, while Skrtel and Kyrgiakos (who, as a Greek, was unsurprisingly jeered by the Macedonians every time he touched the ball) gave no quarter. Kelly and Agger also did well from fullback, especially Kelly's assist and despite Agger looking a bit off the pace after no preseason appearances.

There's obviously room for improvement, but that's to be expected. Adding Agger and Skrtel (in addition to Aquilani, who missed the last friendly) led to a vast improvement on Saturday's performance. I expected more from both Aquilani and Jovanovic, who impressed in flashes but nowhere near consistently enough, but that will come. Amoo showed how speed can kill, but he needs to bulk up and figure out the final ball before he'll truly threaten.

Job done, and a win in Woy's first competitive match. That's absolutely all that could be asked for today.

28 July 2010

On Luke Young

Update (5:15pm): So in my rush to get this up before all eyes were on tomorrow's match, I may have jumped the gun a bit. Wouldn't be the first time, probably won't be the last. The most recent news is that Young traveled with Villa to Portugal after initially failing to agree terms. The Telegraph's Rory Smith posted similar on Twitter soon after. The move may still go through, or it may not. Small wonder he might not want to come to Liverpool to sit on the bench for less money. Either way, I won't delete this post as a reminder that summer makes me batshit insane. However, if it does collapse, I'll probably strike through the whole thing for thoroughness' sake. Except the part about Degen being garroted. I expect that to happen regardless.

I hate to bump the preview off the top, but the signing of Luke Young is just about official, and while I'm not obviously not overwhelmed, I reckon I should still chime in with a few ifs and buts while they're timely.

I'm desperately hoping he's the new Arbeloa – a versatile bench player, primarily the deputy right-back with an ability to fill in on the left if needed. Even considering the rumored £2.5m fee, he's a better option than Degen, who'll probably be surreptitiously strangled and dumped in the alley out back if Liverpool can't find some sucker to pay money for him.

Yes, he's the fourth right back on the books if we count Kelly and Darby in addition to Johnson (we're not counting Degen anymore), and it only feeds into the lingering suspicion that, like at Fulham, Hodgson doesn't trust youth. Liverpool still has no starting left back, but I still expect one will be bought once Insua agrees terms with Fiorentina. In an ideal world, Insua won't agree terms, and Liverpool will still buy Figueroa or someone similar, but we've long left any semblance of an ideal world. Maybe Hodgson simply thinks Darby's not good enough and Kelly should be a center-back. It's all speculation for now.

I will say this. If Young's supposed to be the first choice left-back or, god forbid, a replacement for Glen Johnson if the Inter rumors come to fruition now that Maicon looks likely to go to Real (sorry for even mentioning, but the crazy person that lives in my head won't shut up), all bets are absolutely off. Death, violence, destruction, murderous rampage, etc. But let's wait to see if that shoe drops before baying for blood.

Yes, he's 31 years old. Yes, he couldn't get into Aston Villa's team last year, and it's more than odd to see O'Neill willingly sell a player to Liverpool, let alone an English one. But he's a homegrown, experienced addition to help fill out a very thin squad. He's a player Hodgson's been tracking since Fulham (make of that what you will). I can't imagine his wages will be prohibitive. We can whine about 'lack of ambition' all we want – and I probably will – but a squad player is a squad player is a squad player. And on the face of it, Luke Young isn't the worst option to have in the squad. We all know money is tight, to say the least.

But even considering the deal in the best light possible, there are a lot of "ifs" involved. Good luck, Luke. You're gonna need it.

Liverpool at FK Rabotnicki 07.29.10

2.45pm ET. Not on live TV in the US. As usual with these games, check myp2p or LFC Globe for streams tomorrow.

Guess at a line-up
Kelly Skrtel Kyrgiakos Agger
Amoo Lucas Spearing Jovanovic

"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!"

I've used 'once more into the breach' before, but it seemed fitting to go back to that well while including the subsequent line. Yep, I'm looking forward to the coming season! Pity Liverpool aren't up against French opposition. That'd make the Henry V quote even more apt.

Before today, I would have guessed the same XI that faced Kaiserslautern outside of Aquilani for Eccleston. But this morning, the Liverpool Echo reported that while the English World Cup players will stay at Melwood, Agger and Skrtel are among those making the trip to Macedonia. It makes little sense to bring those players except to start.

With Darby uncomfortable at left-back during Liverpool's two previous friendlies, especially against Kaiserslautern, I'm hopeful Agger will step into the fray as a makeshift LB. I'll continue to fervently argue that he's a center-back, and playing him at full-back borders on wastefulness, but at least he's left-footed and comfortable with the ball at his feet. New signing Danny Wilson's in the squad as well, and has recently asserted his willingness to play in the position, but Agger seems the safer option. Meanwhile, a central pairing of Skrtel and Kyrgiakos would set a new standard for terrifying; it'd be a battle to see who can consume more opposition body parts. They may not be the most mobile, but you'd better not let either of them catch you.

Otherwise, I can't see many changes to the front six. I still assume Hodgson will deploy some variation of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, especially with Liverpool away from Anfield. Aquilani seems the most suited to playing behind Ngog as a lone striker, although we know Jovanovic can play up top if Liverpool use an orthodox 4-4-2. But with a lack of options for the flanks – Jovanovic, Amoo, Eccleston, and Ince are basically it – and an almost certain midfield partnership of Lucas and Spearing (especially after Hodgson's praise of Spearing), Aquilani behind Ngog makes the most sense with this blend of youngsters, reserves, and senior players.

I'd imagine most Liverpool fans are still reliant on Wikipedia and the like for information on Rabotnicki. I won't pretend I'm ahead of the curve. I don't think I've seen any of the Skopje side's players in action before; if I did when England faced Macedonia in Euro 2008 qualifying, I don't remember them. I couldn't find a stream to see their 0-0 in the second leg of the previous round against Mika, which took them through after a 1-0 win at home. Rabotnicki finished second last year in the 12-team league, and have a bunch of Macedonians and a smattering of Brazilians. One of those Brazilians, Fabio Silva, is the side's top scorer through two rounds of Europa League qualifying with five goals. Another Brazilian, Wandeir, has four. It's probably safe to assume those are the main threats. That's all I've got. I'd hope Liverpool's scouting department knows more than I do.

Back to the heady days of traveling to far, foreign lands, to a country where Liverpool's never played. I'm sure there's some sort of metaphor in Hodgson's first competitive match coming in such exotic territory, but I'm too lazy to find it. My only hope is this unfamiliar line-up does themselves more credit than in the two previous preseason matches.

I'll be honest; the Europa League isn't a priority with a thin squad that needs to reassert itself domestically. It should be a competition almost akin to the Carling Cup: blooding youngsters and spelling first-choice players when necessary. But Hodgson has to begin on the right foot, no matter the line-up, or the knives will come out immediately. Being British only gets you so much of a reprieve from the howling wolves who make up the press pack.

24 July 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Kaiserslautern

Kelly Kyrgiakos Ayala Darby
Amoo Lucas Spearing Jovanovic
Ngog Eccleston

Degen for Jovanovic 45'
Ince for Kelly 68'
Dalla Valle for Ngog 73'
Shelvey for Lucas 73'
Palsson for Spearing 76'
Irwin for Kyrgiakos 77'
Robinson for Eccleston 81'

Mitsanski 32'

A much more interesting spectacle than last Wednesday's friendly, but much more disappointing in many ways as well. And the result's not one of them.

The 4-4-2 formation seemed to show more attacking intent, ostensibly demonstrated by Ngog's chance 20 seconds in – taking advantage of a defensive mistake and cleverly turning the center-back before pushing a low left-footed shot wide of the far post. But Kaiserslautern responded immediately, with Route 1 football leading to a Nemec shot tipped over the crossbar by Cavalieri after Ayala dove in and missed the tackle. That basically set the tone for the day.

Eccleston and Amoo's pace threatened Kaiserslautern's high back-line at times, as on Wednesday, but Liverpool's inability to keep possession hindered any chance of manufacturing momentum. The 4-4-2 formation led to a vastly more open game, but Liverpool's midfield was bypassed time and time again, which was probably the biggest disappointment considering how steady and disciplined Lucas and Spearing usually are. You expect both, especially Lucas, to see a lot more time on the ball. Meanwhile, Jovanovic looked unsure of his role as an orthodox left winger, tentative in defense and not forward anywhere near as much as expected, but it was his debut and he did see a fair bit of World Cup action.

It was Ayala's second or third mistake that led to Kaiserslautern's 32nd minute goal, which probably wasn't the best way build on his man-of-the-match performance three days ago. Once again, he dove in for the tackle and, once again, he missed, allowing his man to get to the byline and center for a Mitsanski tap-in. The impetuousness of youth. We didn't see much of that in his appearances last season.

The goal dissipated what little steam Liverpool had created. Kaiserslautern were increasingly able to dictate terms, while delivering threatening crosses from Liverpool's left. Twice, Kelly was sucked into the center, and twice Liverpool could have been punished at the back post by better finishing.

The second half saw little different with Kaiserslautern happy to keep the lead. The second half changes changed little, other than Ince looking dangerous and Shelvey again showing potential. Besides Jovanovic coming off at half-time – no surprise given his participation in the World Cup – that Liverpool waited until the 68th minute to start making substantial substitutions probably shows that this was pretty close to what next Thursday's team will look like. And it was Ince that created Liverpool's only decent equalizing opportunity, cleverly beating the center-back to the outside before delivering a ball that was too wide to be a shot and too far in front of the on-rushing Eccleston to be a cross. The home side basically played the final 15 minutes in their own half, content to see out a win over Liverpool – even if it's just preseason – while the young Reds failed to put enough pressure on the opposition to disrupt the plan.

I'm well aware that preseason results are poor predictors for how the actual season will play out. Players who look like world beaters (cough Voronin cough) struggle to make any positive impact when it counts, etc. I'm also aware that Liverpool's still missing a full XI of first-team players. But this group will have a big say this season because of the squad's lack of depth, and it appears Liverpool will be reliant on at least the majority of them for Europa League progression. No matter the circumstances, we had hoped to see better from defense, midfield and attack, and we didn't. We also hoped to see at least one goal scored this preseason.

Five days until the trip to Macedonia.

23 July 2010

New Manager, Better Results?

With recent additions to the Liverpool squad, morale's definitely improved, and fan expectations in regards to the coming season seem to have heightened. So I thought I'd go back and see how Liverpool fared after changing managers.

As always, click on the image to open in a new window.

When changes have been made mid-season (as with Shankly, Evans, and Houllier), I included the first full campaign the new man had in charge – the real test of whether the side's any different. Unsurprisingly, results vary.

Dramatic increases:
• Fagan to Dalglish (+11 points)
• Souness to Evans (+14 points)
• Evans/Houllier to Houllier (+13 points)

Dramatic decreases:
• Dalglish to Souness (-12 points)
• Evans to Evans/Houllier (-11 points)

Essentially unchanged:
• Taylor to Shankly
• Shankly to Paisley
• Paisley to Fagan
• Houllier to Benitez

It took time for Shankly to get Liverpool out of the Second Division (winning promotion two and a half seasons after taking the reigns, and winning the league two seasons after promotion). It took time for Benitez to revamp Houllier's squad (despite recent revisionism) and come to terms with the Premiership. But during the glory days, Liverpool kept humming, from Shankly, to Paisley, to Fagan, with results and league finish similar before Dalglish made an enormous impact.

Meanwhile, negative changes were soon evident during Souness' appalling tenure, and after the appalling idea to make Evans and Houllier joint managers.

Circumstances matter. Please remember that before expectations about Hodgson working wonders spin wildly out of control.

Full numbers follow below:

Phil Taylor --> Shankly (Shankly took over December 1959)
1958-59: 53pts (4th; 2nd div)
1959-60: 50pts (3rd; 2nd div)
1960-61: 52pts (3rd; 2nd div)

Shankly --> Paisley
1973-74: 57pts (2nd)
1974-75: 51pts (2nd)

Paisley --> Fagan
1982-83: 82 (1st)
1983-84: 80 (1st)

Fagan --> Dalglish
1984-85: 77 (2nd)
1985-86: 88 (1st)

Dalglish --> Souness (Souness started May 1991)
1990-91: 76 (2nd)
1991-92: 64 (6th)

Souness --> Evans (Evans started February 1994)
1992-93: 59 (6th)
1993-94: 60 (8th)
1994-95: 74 (4th)

Evans --> Evans/Houllier (Evans sacked November 1998) --> Houllier
1997-98: 65 (3rd)
1998-99: 54 (7th)
1999-00: 67 (4th)

Houllier --> Benitez
2003-04: 60 (4th)
2004-05: 58 (5th)

21 July 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Grasshoppers

Degen Kelly Ayala Darby
Amoo Lucas Spearing Eccleston

Gulasci for Cavalieri 46'
Shelvey for Lucas 62'
Ince for Aquilani 62'
Dalla Valle for Ngog 62'
Palsson for Kelly 70'
Irwin for Degen 70'
Robinson for Amoo 82'

Thankfully, I'm more interested in the formation and fringe players than the actual performance or result when watching preseason friendlies. Although a goal or two certainly wouldn't have hurt, as this was about as yawn-inducing as friendlies can be. Surprise, surprise. It's July, and Liverpool's without all 13 players who took part in the World Cup.

Needless to say, it was a snail-paced game with a smattering of half-chances. Grasshoppers were the marginally stronger side and had the edge in possession, but they were in familiar surroundings and already started their league season last Saturday. Aquilani, Lucas, and Ngog were Liverpool's sole senior players – unless we're being generous and counting Degen and Spearing – and they provided the lone shots in the first half: Aquilani's 18-yard free kick too close to the keeper and Ngog's blast wide on the break when encircled by three defenders.

Amoo's pace posed a few questions after the interval, but his end product left much to be desired, with Spearing's volley over and Eccleston's shot wide the only second half opportunities. As the game went on, what little tempo there was ebbed away, especially after the substitutions – again, unsurprising in a July friendly.

The teamsheet suggested 4-2-3-1 before the match, but Liverpool were assuredly 4-4-1-1 today – the formation Hodgson preferred at Fulham last season – with the wingers deeper and wider than at any time last season. Both Amoo and Eccleston showed glimpses of potential, usually through pace, but neither delivered any decent final balls. Unfortunately, it led to Ngog isolated when on the field, and Liverpool switched to 4-4-2 after the first round of substitutions, with Eccleston joining Dalla Valle as a de facto front-man. But I can't remember the young Finnish striker, who's known for being an in-the-box poacher, getting any touches with the ball bogged down in midfield.

The most impressive feature was Liverpool's defending, with Ayala at the center of absolutely all of it. He was as impressive as could be in a half-hearted training match, combining well with Kelly and ensuring the home side had few opportunities, compensating for Degen frequently caught upfield. Gulasci had less to do than Cavalieri – who had to make one smart block in the first half – but looked very composed for his age. Spearing was his usual combative self in midfield, and Darby did adequately on the left despite both he and Eccleston in front of him being predominantly right-footed. It was nice to see Lucas get the armband, and his replacement Shelvey had some encouraging moments as well.

So what'd we learn? Damned little. Don't sell Ayala – don't even loan Ayala – is about all that's definite, and I'm hopeful that the 4-4-1-1 will look a lot better once the senior players return if Hodgson decides to stick with. Otherwise, it was a nice 90-minute workout in the summer heat with no injuries. Onward and upward... we hope.

20 July 2010

On Danny Wilson

Update: And basically done, from Rangers' official site.

In the last two days, following the incredibly depressing sale of Insua, we've seen Joe Cole sign, Gerrard commit to the club, and now the Danny Wilson transfer finally near completion (news broken by Robbo Huyton of Well Red and confirmed by the Telegraph's Rory Smith – yes, Twitter links, but Twitter links from those two equal confirmation in my book). After all the doom and gloom, it's incredibly strange to see so much good news in so short a period of time. London buses and all.

Wilson's 18, so although he's Scottish, he'd count as a senior homegrown player by the time he's 21. It's why the deal needed to get done this summer, no matter the manager, if it was to be done at all. I can't remember seeing his name mentioned since Benitez was sacked, and it's incredibly heart-warming to have business finally done the right way, outside of the back pages. For a change.

He's a 6'1" left-footed center-back who did excellently for Rangers last season, far above what was expected of him – including in the Champions League, where he became the youngest player to turn out for Rangers in the competition. He was the Scottish PFA and FWA Young Player of the Year, and already has a league, cup, and league cup winners' medal thanks to Rangers' recent dominance.

With Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Kelly, and Ayala currently around, he's one for the future, but at least we're able to think optimistically about the future for a change. The signing may give credence to the Ayala and Kyrgiakos departure rumors, but Liverpool would still have depth at center-back even if both of those moves took place (although neither would fill me with glee). Maybe Wilson will be loaned out, but I doubt he's coming – for a rumored £2m potentially rising to £5m – for a year of reserve football, and regardless, it's great news. That it's for the future, not just solely short-term thinking, actually makes me more excited than I was for Joe Cole yesterday.

As Dalglish was supposedly the one most involved with scouting the player, I hope it's a sign King Kenny's still in the fold. Let's hold off on the comparisons to Alan Hansen, which seem based solely on nationality, but as I wrote when the deal was first mooted back in May, Liverpool's never won a league title without a Scot in the squad.

I know everyone's sick of Captain Buzzkill, and everyone should truly be happier because of the last 48 hours, but we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. Owners, Purslow, debt, lies, etc. I'm as sick of writing it as you are of reading it. The feeling that another shoe has to drop still lurks in the back of my insanely pessimistic mind. But it's nice to bask in the warm, glowing warming glow of good news for a change.

Of course, it begs the unavoidable question: can he play left-back?

19 July 2010

On Joe Cole

"Wherever I go, it'll be a footballing decision. I want to play in a more central position and I want a manager who has faith in me. And I'm talking about club football here."
- Joe Cole, June 27, 2010
There are certainly signs for optimism in the signing of Joe Cole, which is still subject to a medical. It is nice to know that Liverpool can convince anyone to join the club at the moment, especially when Cole's known to have wanted to stay in London. Not to mention that teams actually in the Champions League were supposedly in for him.

Still, Liverpool haven't had the best record with injury-plagued free transfers now, have they?

Not only that, but while the flanks have been a preeminent concern for, say, the last six years, there are bigger holes at the moment. Joe Cole's best position is behind the striker, which is why I've included the above quote. That's also where Aquilani and Gerrard are at their best. Or he plays on the left, where Jovanovic looks likely to step in and Liverpool already have Babel and Riera (hopefully Riera's on his way out, ideally via cannon). Or on the right, where there's already Kuyt and Maxi. Yes, he's a versatile attacker who can play anywhere across the line of three in the 4-2-3-1 (which I sincerely hope Hodgson sticks with), and those frequently come in handy, but it's not a priority. Left back (two, really) and striker are priorities.

Look, at this point, I'm glad Liverpool's signed anyone. And less than a month ago, I was absolutely shouting for his inclusion in the England starting XI. Liverpool needs tricky, creative players, especially since the departure of Benayoun, and both Cole and Jovanovic ostensibly fit that brief. But there's cause for concern when we're discussing a frequently-crocked attacker on a rumored £90,000 a week. The name "Harry Kewell" rings an atonal bell.

Not to mention that even with Joe Cole, and if Liverpool sign Loïc Remy and a left back or two, as has been heavily rumored, Hicks and Gillett will still be the owners, and Purslow and Broughton will still be running day-to-day matters. £90,000 per week is a pittance compared to interest payments of £110,000 per day.

Pessimism reigns supreme this summer. It cannot be helped. Nevertheless, I'll be glad to welcome Joe Cole to Anfield. At the least, he won't be able to score winners against Liverpool anymore.

17 July 2010

No Friendly, No More Insua

I was hoping to write about Liverpool's first friendly today. Lord knows I'd much rather "analyze" matters on the pitch. Ha.

Instead, after postponing and then canceling the game against Al-Hilal due to torrential rain in Austria, the official site announced that the rumored Insua to Fiorentina link is a done deal. When it rains, it pours...

I expected bad things to happen this summer. I still expect more. But I did not expect the sale of Emiliano Insua.

Don't get me wrong; "worse" things can happen. And, yes, I admittedly have more time for the player than most, having been firmly on the bandwagon since his debut against Pompey in April 2007. But this sale makes zero sense.

He is young, on comparably low wages, and would have counted as a homegrown player come next season. He was the only senior left back at the club. The deal will reap all of £4-5m, which will scarcely be enough to purchase any new left back, let alone keep "bigger names" at the club. This move is stupid and short-sighted any way you look at it.

More ominously, this came out exactly one week ago:
“I saw him play in the last three days and I like him both as a player and on a personal level,” Hodgson told Radio Blu in Florence.

“However, talks with Fiorentina started before I got here, so I don’t know how advanced they are.

“I cannot say if Insua will stay at Liverpool or not. I’ll have to discuss that with the club.”
Super. It's not proof, but it's yet another sign the bankers (read: Purslow) are running the club. I doubt Hodgson's seen enough in the past week to change his mind, and it's exceptionally strange Insua came along on the Swiss training camp. It also, again, begs the question of who's running the football side of the club, but, sadly, I don't think that question needs answering.

The only, only explanation I came come up with is that it's "senior sources" yet again. Insua was a scapegoat last season, even though he played more games than expected because of Aurelio's inability to stay fit and the sale of Dossena for working capital. I can't help but think that, like with Rafa, the media's doing Liverpool's business through Cecil. Picking off the players that Purslow thinks the fans will make the least fuss over, even if they're the young prospects the team should be built off of. Wonderful.

Despite last season's difficulties, Insua still had five Premiership assists, six in all competitions, which made him joint-third in the squad (Gerrard and Benayoun had more in all competitions; Gerrard and Aquilani had more in the league). Yes, he was beaten like a rented mule at times last season, but he thrown into the deep end with bricks tied to his ankles. His acceleration and pace on the turn are questionable, but otherwise, he's always an above-average attacking fullback and will only get better defensively. And he is 21 years old. Other than Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy, I'm struggling to come up with any left-backs who've been defensively solid or made the breakthrough in the Prem at that age.

I am so baffled and irate about this transfer. And I'm sure it won't be the last time before the end of August.

16 July 2010

FK Rabotnicki or FC Mika, and Al-Hilal

So it's been nearly a week since the World Cup ended and normal service still hasn't resumed around these parts. I'd apologize, but it wouldn't be sincere. I'd rather stay silent than join in the speculative, wrist-slitting, 'everyone's getting sold and the world's gonna end' choir. The summer silly season always makes me insane, and this summer's unsurprisingly been the worst in recent memory. "Paranoid" and "irrational" don't even come close to covering my thought processes.

Of course, the problems at the club remain. Hicks and Gillett are still parasitic leeches sucking Liverpool FC bone dry, and getting them out remains the utmost priority. Purslow seemingly still believes he's manager and in charge of transfers, as illustrated by the recent gossip linking Insua and Lucas with moves (please God no), while Riera somehow remains bullet-proof. I don't believe much of what the club or media has said regarding transfers, but I obviously remain fearful. It's varying measures of confusing and depressing, and I'd rather not blindly fumble around trying to make sense of it all when nothing's concrete other than that the four horseman of the apocalypse need to be expunged.

Thankfully, there is a bit of "real news" to write about with today's Europa League qualifying draw and tomorrow's first preseason friendly against Al Hilal in Switzerland.

This morning, Liverpool drew FK Rabotnicki or FC Mika for the third round of the Europa League qualifiers, to take place on July 29 and August 5. A trip to Macedonia or Armenia to start the season (well, the first leg is at home, but you get my point). Unsurprisingly, I know next to nothing about them, but a cursory search shows Rabotnicki won the first leg 1-0 at home. Rabotnicki finished second in the 12-team Macedonian League last season. The Armenian League, which has eight teams, runs from March until November; Mika is currently fourth this year, and finished second last season. I admittedly haven't seen any of their players in action. Liverpool have never faced either of these sides, nor have they traveled to either of these countries. Sometimes I'm terrible at this analysis lark.

Meanwhile, the squad list for tomorrow's friendly is:

GK: Diego Cavalieri, Peter Gulacsi, Martin Hansen
DEF: Daniel Ayala, Stephen Darby, Philipp Degen, Emiliano Insua, Martin Kelly, Victor Palsson, Sotirios Kyrgiakos (arrived July 15)
MID: David Amoo, Alberto Aquilani, Thomas Ince, Steven Irwin, Lucas Leiva, Albert Riera, Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing
ATT: Lauri Dalla Valle, Nathan Eccleston, David Ngog, Milan Jovanovic (came straight from Serbia)

Obviously, most of the first team is still away on holiday following the World Cup. Neither Jovanovic nor Kyrgiakos are expected to play tomorrow after joining the squad late. The players who took part in the World Cup will get three weeks off from when their country was eliminated (sorry, can't help linking the official site in this case), so everyone bar Torres, Reina, Kuyt, and Babel should be back by the time Liverpool line up for the first leg of Europa League qualifying.

I'm actually excited – well, as excited as I can be this season – to see some of these young players, especially Shelvey, Ince, and Dalla Valle. I'm most excited to see Aquilani with a full preseason under his belt – forget last year; this campaign will be utterly crucial for him, and will determine whether Benitez was wise to gamble on him. I canceled my e-Season ticket because of the ongoing ownership debacle, but if there's a stream and I get a chance to see this friendly – which is at 1pm EDT in the US – I'll have something up on it tomorrow. And if I do find a stream, I'll throw the link up on my Twitter feed.

11 July 2010

Spain 1-0 Holland aet

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Pedro Xavi Iniesta

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
De Jong Van Bommel
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

Iniesta 116'

Good defeats evil.

There is a reason why teams up against proponents of "the beautiful game" turn matches into wars of attrition. Because it usually works. Pity for the Dutch it only worked for 115 minutes, but if we want to bring in concepts of fairness, karma, and justice, well, we got the right result. In an unjust universe, that's not usually the case.

47 fouls. 14 yellow cards. 1 red card. 13 offsides. 11 shots on target. 1 goal.

I guess it shouldn't have surprised. Spain had won their last three games by the same scoreline. And pragmatic Holland were always going to make it difficult. But I didn't expect this anti-advertisement for football. Finals frequently disappoint, but this was especially ugly. Nine of those yellow cards were shown to Holland – it should have been more, and they should have been down to ten long before the 109th minute. It's easy to criticize Howard Webb after that (and I will, thank you), but neither side helped him out.

When Ramos nearly scored in the 5th, a free header well-saved by the diving Stekelenburg, it looked like we might actually get that aesthetic steamroller we'd hoped for. Holland couldn't get the ball for love or money in the first 10 minutes; Villa nearly got on the end of a chipped ball over the top, Ramos' center was almost turned into the Dutch net by Heitinga. But then the Netherlands made their mark on the game and Spain. I hope the more literary media outlets make multiple references to the Eighty Years' War.

Van Persie had set the tone with a late kick on Busquets in the second minute, and got his yellow in the 15th. Van Bommel saw one, which could have been red, seven minutes later, charging in on Iniesta. And five minutes after that, de Jong definitely should have seen a straight red for kung fu fighting with Alonso, leaving stud-marks on his sternum. There's pragmatism and there's brutality. I can't help but point out the parallels with Holland's last appearance in the final, Clockwork Orange beaten and bruised by the hosts Argentina in 1978. Neither totaalvoetbal nor shock and awe seems to work for the Dutch. Meanwhile, Spain weren't winning any friends by reacting theatrically and begging for bookings with every foul. This team is heavily modeled on Barcelona, after all.

Don't get me wrong; other than the disgusting antics, it was an eminently watchable match despite the dearth of goals. As per usual with Spain. Both side had chances, especially as the game went on, and both Robben and Villa spurned opportunities you'd wager anything on them scoring after the hour mark. First, the Bayern winger split the centerbacks running onto Sneijder's through, only to see Casillas somehow save with his biggest toe. Six minutes later, the substitute Navas sprinted down the flank and sent in a low cross that Heitinga could only touch to Villa, but the sprawling centerback somehow still blocked the close-range shot. Ramos headed over another set play in the 77th, Robben amazingly stayed on his feet on a breakaway (yeah, really!) in the 83rd despite being fouled by Puyol, only to see Iker come out to smother. Either team could have won this game in normal time as both played the style they set out to.

Unsurprisingly, as legs continued to tire, the game continued to open up. Holland replaced Kuyt with Elia and de Jong with van der Vaart. Spain responded with Navas for Pedro, Cesc for Alonso, and finally Torres for Villa (during the extra-time interval). Neither side made a "defensive" substitution; at worst, it was like-for-like, and at least that's admirable. Stekelenburg made a huge save on Fabregas, set up by Iniesta, in the 95th. Mathijsen somehow headed a free attempt over less than a minute later. Then Navas, open on the right, saw his strike deflected into the side netting.

And in the 109th, we finally got the inevitable red card when Heitinga picked up his second yellow, pulling back a potentially-through Iniesta just outside the box. From there, Holland could only play for penalties, and Spain made them pay at long last. Torres' smart early cross was under-hit, but the off-balance Dutch defender could only clear it to Fabregas, who set up Iniesta for a smashing winner on the bounce, with the Barca man whipping off his shirt to display a classy tribute to Dani Jarque. There's no response to that with less than five minutes left and a man disadvantage. Of course, we still have some controversy, as Holland should have had a corner instead of a Spanish goal kick, while Elia was arguably fouled, in the build-up to the winner. Karma is a bitch.

Given my Liverpool bent, I'd be remiss if I didn't give my congratulations to Torres and Reina, and condolences to Kuyt and Babel. Yes, I was wrong; Torres didn't start once again, and it was the right decision given that he pulled up with what appeared to be cramp (and hopefully hopefully hopefully not a hamstring injury) right at the end. Pedro didn't impress, but Spain's other subs did: Navas stretched the game well, while Fabregas set up the winner and could have had one himself. Meanwhile, it was probably Kuyt's worst game of the tournament, and little surprise to see him off for the more attacking Elia in the 71st. Liverpool's players had a tough club season, and those in the final had a tough final. Sorry guys. I hope for all of us that next season is better.

So, man bites dog and beauty beats the beast. The right team won. That they're the current European champions, and despite a loss in their opening game, makes it all the more impressive. Ignore the 1-0 results if all you care about is goals. This Spanish side is one of the best teams to ever play international football. The best team doesn't win often enough.

09 July 2010

Spain v Holland 07.11.10

Live in the US on ABC at 2:30pm

Guess at line-ups:
Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Iniesta Xavi Villa

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
De Jong Van Bommel
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

A football romantic's dream final, and one of the best and worst early birthday presents I've ever received (Monday, thanks for asking). I adore and detest this match-up, somehow at the same time. One of the four teams I've done reviews on and root for will win the World Cup (and it's not like England or the US was going to), and I have no idea who I'd prefer. The worst possible moment to be a sports bigamist. I regret this decision immensely.

A win would exorcise countless demons for either country. Spain were perennially tortured in major tournaments until two years ago, while Holland's legendary generation (and I do not use that word lightly; they are literally Beowulf-style stuff of legends) lost in consecutive World Cup finals. The 1974 team remains the apotheosis of both total football and the capriciousness of a 1-0 lead. And now, Spain's playing the role of Clockwork Orange as archetypes of the beautiful game, while Holland have been this tournament's pragmatic utilitarians. Even Cruyff's declaring Spain a descendant of totaalvoetbal, and he's kind of right. Somewhere along the line, Spain became Barca (which still has Cruyff's fingerprints all over it), and that opens a whole different sociopolitical can of worms.

Both of these teams deserve to be here: Holland beating the pre-tournament favorites in the quarterfinals, Spain beating the "team of the tournament so far" in the semis. Plus, and most importantly, each side has two players from Liverpool FC, two of which with an excellent chance of starting. I would absolutely adore seeing Reina and Torres (and – I'll readily admit it – Alonso too) or Kuyt and Babel lift the cup. It actually makes my brain hurt.

At the moment, and as it usually the case by this time of the tournament, both teams basically write themselves. The only question is whether Torres will come back into Spain's XI.

10 Spanish players have started every game – Torres was replaced by Silva in the first match and Pedro in the most recent (incidentally, those are the only two games where Villa failed to score). Only Mathijsen (warm-up injury), de Jong (suspension), and van der Wiel (twice: trying to avoid suspension, then getting suspended later on anyway) have missed matches for Holland. All are available here, and my guess is that Torres returns, although my clear bias probably affects that.

Don't get me wrong; other than "that incident" in the 82nd minute on Wednesday (still angry), Pedro played fairly well – especially in the first half. Him over Silva or Cesc seemed the smarter decision if Torres wasn't starting. But while Pedro did well to create an early chance, spread the field marginally more (he still moved centrally quite often), and added more pace to the attack, Villa looked far worse for it.

Even if Torres isn't fully fit or his runs aren't as threatening, he still draws defenders solely out of fear, and he draws them into spaces that Villa exploits. All too often, Villa was double-teamed by Friedrich and Mertesacker. He may find Heitinga and Mathijsen easier to exploit, but, regardless, that does not happen with Torres on the field, even if he's on one leg. Shifting to Pedro, Cesc, Llorente, or Silva around the hour mark if necessary, as against Portugal and Paraguay, seems a safer option. That and I just find it hard to believe that Fernando Torres could be left out of a World Cup final. The one argument I can come up with for Pedro over Torres is because of Kuyt v Ramos. Kuyt's diligence will pin Ramos deeper than any game so far; Pedro would add more presence on the right than Iniesta's constant cutting in.

Dirk Kuyt will almost certainly become the third Liverpool player to play in a World Cup final – behind Hunt in 1966 and Hamann in 2002. Torres should be the fourth at the least; even if he doesn't start, he'd probably still come off the bench. And this would be the fourth consecutive World Cup final with teammates starting on opposite sides if Nando makes it – Karembeu/Roberto Carlos in '98, Lucio versus three from Bayern in 2002, and Thuram versus three from Juventus in 2006. And this time it'd be representing Liverpool. Unless, of course, Silva starts for Spain and/or van der Vaart for Holland, which would give City or Real the honor.

I don't want to curse la Roja, but they're clearly favorites. Holland are very good at attacking at pace – not as reliant on the counter as Germany, more comfortable in possession – but they'll still be forced to defend more because of Spain's supremacy at the possession game. Spain will press and press when without the ball, and Busquets will attempt to shut down Sneijder as he did Özil. Not only that, but with the exception of Holland's inside-out wingers – with Robben a near certainty to cut infield, while Kuyt's done well to add some width on the left – their formation is exceptionally similar to Germany's: a fairly standard 4-2-3-1, even though Holland's a lot more fluid amongst the front four. If the Dutch replicate their second half against Brazil, they can stifle Spain, if not take the game to them, but Holland still needed a bit of luck and some insanity from Felipe Melo. Van Bommel, De Jong, Heitinga, and Mathijsen will have to be very, very good. But that goes for everyone in orange.

Spain has used almost the same XI (and assuredly the same style despite the addition of a holding midfielder) as the European Championship-winning side; Pique, Busquets, and Pedro (and Navas to a lesser extent) are the only substantial changes. They play a certain way, and even if it's not as awe-inspiring as the Euro 2008 model, it's been just as effective.

Holland have had an outstanding tournament, and I will feel terrible if they fail in their third World Cup final – especially for Kuyt, naturally. But it's Spain's trophy to lose. And, not to end on too trite a sentiment, having these two countries in the final means that football wins no matter the result.

07 July 2010

Spain 1-0 Germany

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Pedro Xavi Iniesta

Lahm Friedrich Mertesacker Boateng
Schweinsteiger Khedira
Trochowski Özil Podolski

No matter the opposition, Spain only knows how to play one way. And yet again, it leads to a 1-0 win. When that one way works so often...

And it led to an eminently watchable game despite the lack of goals. It was Spain's best performance of the World Cup; that Germany limited them to a solitary goal, from a set play no less, demonstrates just how good this Germany team is. But Spain were simply outstanding in midfield, pressing insanely, keeping possession excellently, and restricting German chances on the counter. Busquets was actually brilliant – the best game I've ever seen him play.

Obviously, I'm duty-bound to discuss the lack of Torres in the starting XI. Del Bosque finally went with width, with Pedro instead of Silva or Cesc (making seven of the starting 11 Barca players), and Spain's packed midfield dominated proceedings. Yet outside of Puyol's diving header over in the 14th, the Germans arguably had the better first half chances, with Trochowski's left-footed shot requiring a diving save from Casillas in the 32nd and a breakaway for Özil on the stroke of halftime. Consensus seems to be that Spain were lucky to see Ramos stay on the field, getting back to challenge and arguably clipping Özil just outside the box. It would have been soft, and Özil didn't help himself by tripping over his own feet in the box, falling theatrically.

But Spain finally put their command to use in the second half. Alonso shot wide of both posts around the 50th, before Neuer saved Pedro's shot from the top of the box after Alonso's layoff and Villa narrowly missed Iniesta's center across the face of goal within a furious minute of action just before the hour mark. Substitute Kroos forced a save from Casillas, volleying Podolski's cross tamely at the keeper in the 69th, before Captain Cavemen finally broke the deadlock from Xavi's corner – all 5'10" of him over the towering Teutonic defense. A brilliant charge forward to rise unmarked over Pique and smash past Neuer. It's the first Spanish goal of the tournament that didn't involve Villa.

Like always, Spain's style of play was its best defense. Spain made two substitutions with the lead, and both were like for like: Torres for Villa followed by Silva for Pedro. But before Pedro went off the pitch, he should have set up the goal we've all been waiting for: countering in acres of space on the right, he drew the defender, with Torres absolutely wide open for the tap-in. Somehow the Barca winger overran, tried to dance around Friedrich, and petulantly pointed to the spot after Friedrich dispossessed him. Embarrassing. Del Bosque took him off on principle moments later. I don't care that Spain won; he should still be flogged in the dressing room.

While there was some unavoidable late pressure – it is the Germans and they are decent at this sport – Spain mostly kept the ball in the opposition half late on, with Silva winning some crucial corners. Spain were simply smarter, and simply better.

Over my shoulder, Klinsmann's currently arguing that Germany showed Spain too much respect and lacked confidence. Nonsense. There might be a grain of truth in there somewhere – experience matters – but missing Müller mattered more, and talent mattered the most. Spain were simply more talented than Germany, with a smarter, stronger style of play that they know inside and out. They controlled the ball, controlled the tempo, and pressed Germany out of the match. The rickety defense that conceded against Switzerland made exactly one mistake – that potential turning point just before the interval – and that's it. This is the first time the defending European Championships have made the World Cup final since the year I was born – West Germany in 1982. That demonstrates just how good this Spanish team is.

Either Holland or Spain is going to lift the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time on Sunday. And it is going to be utterly immense.

06 July 2010

Holland 3-2 Uruguay

Bouhlarouz Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
Van Bommel de Zeeuw
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

MPereira Godin Victorino Caceres
Perez Gargano Arevalo APereira
Cavani Forlan

van Bronckhorst 18'
Forlan 41'
Sneijder 70'
Robben 73'
MPereira 90+2'

Yet another match with a heavy dose of refeereeing controversy. And a bit of late drama just to stay true to form.

The first half ebbed and flowed, with both sides scoring when in the ascendency, but both were long-range strikes with a bit of fortune about them. Stekelenburg got his positioning wrong on Forlan's swerving equalizer, while I'd bet Gio van Bronckhorst couldn't replicate his firecracker on a bet.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Holland being favorites, a level scoreline adequately reflected the match at halftime. The Netherlands were on top early on, with some lovely interplay between the front four and chances for Kuyt and Sneijder, before van Bronckhorst's brilliant 30-yard strike from outside the left corner of the box. It's definitely up there for goal of the tournament.

But the Dutch began sitting deeper, undoubtedly aided by Uruguay resiliently fighting back, and the tide turned around the half-hour mark, soon after handbags between the sides when Caceres clocked de Zeeuw in the chin dangerously attempting a bicycle kick. Alvaro Pereira tested Sketelenburg with a low bouncer and Forlan headed high and wide before the Netherlands defense backed off the Atletico striker in the 41st minute, giving him the space to rocket yet another swinging shot into the net, aided by Sketelenburg initially stepping the wrong way. It was a nice bit of similarity that both goals came from the captains.

Ostensibly reverting to Holland's "usual" emphasis on attack after halftime, van Marwijk sent on van der Vaart for de Zeeuw – an attacking midfielder for a holding midfielder. But as Honigstein reminded in his brilliant column yesterday, it wasn't out-of-character for this Dutch side; Holland made a similar substitution at Euro 2008, bringing on Robben for Engelaar. To quote directly from the piece:
"We gave ourselves space to go forward [on the counter] that way," Van Basten said. This was, in other words, not about simplistic labels like attack or defense, and certainly not about Cruyff's old concepts.
It took about 15 minutes for van der Vaart and Holland to find their feet, with Uruguay packing the center of the pitch brilliantly (and before which van Bronckhorst had to clear off the line following Bouhlarouz's sloppy backpass), but Clockwork Orange were back ahead 10 minutes after regaining the momentum. Pity it came from yet another arguable decision, if not egregious error, from a linesman.

After a sustained build-up, van Persie laid the ball off to his left, with Kuyt leaving it for Sneijder. The perpetual dangerman danced into space, seeing his shot deflected past Muslera. The only problem was van Persie standing in the keeper's line of vision, and although he got out of the way of the ball, probably should have been ruled active and offside, just behind the last defender. It was a lot closer than Tevez's first against Mexico, but it's still generously labeled as dubious at best.

And it knocked the wind out of Uruguay, with Holland seemingly hammering the nail in the coffin three minutes later. Kuyt, taking advantage of space out wide, cut back onto his preferred foot and sent in a perfect cross for Robben – slightly behind the attacker, allowing the Munich man to free himself from his marker. Still, it was a colossal header from the winger, redirecting it with a ton of power off the inside of the far post.

That should have been game over, and until the dying minutes, it looked like it was. Holland delivered a masterclass in keeping possession – the highest compliment I can pay is that it looked like Spain with a lead – only they couldn't find a fourth despite having chances on the break. But Uruguay forced a furious end to the game, coincidentally (I'm sure) after Elia replaced Robben in the 89th minute. Holland – van Bommel, obviously – conceded a late free kick, Elia gave Maxi Pereira too much space when it was played short to him, and the fullback curled a low shot into the far corner. Three minutes of injury time soon became five, but, thankfully, the Dutch finally held on by the fingernails. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the last last-ditch clearing tackle in the box came from Kuyt.

Well played to the Dutch – making their first World Cup final since 1978 – to ensure an all-European affair (outside of Europe, I might add), but it seems necessary to start the kudos with Uruguay. No one expected them to be here. As painful as it is to admit, Forlan's has a shout at being the player of the tournament, up there with Schweinsteiger, Villa, and Sneijder (and Kuyt!). They – well, Forlan – once again came back from a deficit, and truly frightened at the end. The central midfield conceded little space, and a makeshift rearguard – including Barcelona outcast Caceres up against Robben – was outstanding despite conceding thrice.

But yet again, Holland win fortunately and ugly, with some superlative individual performances. Both Robben and Sneijder scored, Kuyt got another assist and ran his socks off. Yet again – outside of Mathijsen fooled by Forlan with poor positioning from Stekelenburg on the same play, and Elia going to sleep on a late free kick – the defense outplayed their reputations.

Holland has been both lucky and good, and that's what wins tournaments. They certainly deserve to be playing on Sunday.

I do interviews

Because, for some reason, people ask me to.

If you're of the inclination to read far too many of my words (and why else would you be here?), I did an interview with Marc from Pandagoal over the weekend. You should check them out regardless of whether you care to read all my nonsense. I mean, what else do you have to do for the next couple of hours before the Holland/Uruguay match?

And if you get through the whole thing, you get a gold star. But see Marc for your gold star.

05 July 2010

Goals per Game: Club versus Country

Click on the image to see it in its full glory in a new window.

I almost didn't include Ronaldo, because his one season with Real Madrid (the only player on this list with stats from just one club season) throws off the whole chart, but I couldn't make a list of the world's top goalscorers without the winking prat. As per usual, he continues to piss me off at every turn.

Nonetheless, discounting that outlier (I hope it's an outlier...), the point remains the same. Only Torres and Messi have a scoring record so dissimilar for club and country. Messi averages .328 more goals per game for Barca, Torres' averages .320 for Liverpool. And Torres' stats seem especially notable because of the similarity between his tallies for Atletico and Spain.

I can't help but think of the old Shankly quote: "Liverpool were made for me, and I was made for Liverpool." And I can't help but fear for the future at the same time.

Full stats below.

Atletico - 91 goals/249 games = .365
Liverpool - 72/116 = .621
Spain - 24/78 = .301

Valencia - 129/225 = .573
Spain - 43/63 = .683

Barcelona - 127/214 = .593
Argentina - 13/49 = .265

United - 118/292 = .404
Real Madrid - 33/35 = .943
Portugal - 23/76 = .301

United - 131/282 = .465
England - 25/64 = .391

Chelsea - 131/260 = .504
Ivory Coast - 45/71 = .634

Werder Bremen: 63/132 = .477
Bayern - 47/123 = .382
Germany - 52/100 = .520

van Persie:
Arsenal - 36/73 = .493
Holland - 19/49 = .388

03 July 2010

Spain 1-0 Paraguay

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Iniesta Xavi Villa

Veron da Silva Alcaraz Morel
Barreto Caceres Riveros Santana
Valdez Cardozo

Villa 83'

Football is so boring. Yet another 1-0. Ha.

Okay, let's try and do that utter madness justice.

Sadly, the first hour – before the insanity set in – was par for the course as Spain's tournament's gone so far. I made the same joke after the Chile match, but it's still relevant. Somehow, Spain seem to have caught the English disease. I hope it wasn't transmitted through Torres.

Paraguay didn't help matters by pressing furiously, which is why they made six changes from the side that went 120 minutes last time out, but it is still strange to see Spain, of all sides, struggle for fluency. Xavi, Xabi, Iniesta, et al could not keep hold of the ball, and gave away possession like it was an out-of-business sale. Paraguay were the more threatening side on the counter, with all of one shot on target to Spain's zero in the first half. Oh, and a goal dubiously ruled out for offside.

In the 41st minute, with Spain's trap in disarray, Valdez got on the end of a deep cross, somehow didn't handle, and stuck it past Casillas. But the flag went up, ostensibly because Cardozo – who challenged for the ball before it reached Valdez – actually was offside. Yet another active versus inactive debate. Those are always fun.

The first ten minutes after the interval stayed on the same course, with Torres – still off the pace and misfiring – hauled off for Fabregas in the 56th. Then, all hell broke loose.

Almost immediately after the substitution, Paraguay won a corner when Ramos awkwardly headed a Paraguayan hoof into touch. On the set play, Pique, beaten goalside by Cardozo, stupidly yanked the striker's arm, conceding a clear penalty. But somehow Saint Iker not only saved, but held on.

Less than a minute later, Spain had a spot kick of their own. Two, to be precise. And it should have been three. Alonso's throughball put Villa in on goal, brought down by the last man Alcaraz, who somehow only saw yellow. Xabi hammered the penalty perfectly, only to see it brought back because of encroachment. His second was a tamer effort, a replication of Cardozo's low strike, parried by Villar. Fabregas, first to the rebound, was tripped by the keeper – which the referee somehow missed – before Ramos had his put-back cleared off the line by da Silva. To sum up the crazy affair, Villar brilliantly saved Iniesta's curler from the left corner of the box a minute after that. And we thought the last moments of the Uruguay-Ghana match were preposterous.

But Spain kept plugging away, Pedro came on for the unfortunate Alonso fifteen minutes from time, and it was the Barca youngster who had a starring role when Spain finally made the breakthrough. But, of course, it was Villa who tallied the goal: his fifth (of Spain's six) of the tournament. Iniesta finally danced through the defense as we know he can do and put Pedro through on the right, only to see his shot cannon off the post. But once again, Villa's in the right place at the right time for the rebound, somehow hitting both posts before his shot crossed the line. I'm running out of synonyms for "insanity," which basically sums up this match and this sport.

Paraguay had one last threat in them, stealing the ball from Iniesta and chipping over the top for Barrios. Casillas made the save, spilling it right into the path of the on-rushing Santa Cruz, then saved his effort as well. Again, insanity. Utter fucking insanity.

Aside from all that absurdity, it wasn't that different from Spain's four other games. They've looked strangely off-form until scoring in all their matches. Pick your scapegoat: we can blame the long season, their system's lack of true width, Torres' lack of fitness, Spain's shaky defense, or any combination of the above. It was a lot like the Switzerland match, only Paraguay pressed higher up the pitch, especially in the first half, and couldn't get the goal despite their chances. And Spain finally made them pay.

Once again, we know Spain can play better, but we just haven't seen it yet. Once again, they're reliant on the marvelous wonder that is Maravilla for goals. And in four days, they'll be up against the soulless, crushing, counter-attacking monsters that are ze Germans.

So, yeah, football is really boring. Yawn.

02 July 2010

Holland 2-1 Brazil

Van der Wiel   Heitinga   Oojier   Van Bronckhorst
De Jong
Robben   Van Bommel   Sneijder   Kuyt
Van Persie

Julio Cesar
Maicon   Lucio   Juan   Michel Bastos
Gilberto Silva   Felipe Melo
Dani Alves   Kaka   Robinho
Luis Fabiano

Robinho 10'
Felipe Melo (og) 53'
Sneijder 68'

That was not supposed to happen.

It was all set up for Brazil. Once again, the team I'm rooting for concedes an early, junior varsity-style defensive error, aided by Mathijsen injured in warm-ups. Melo's 50-yard through, Heitinga caught upfield, and Robben failing to track Robinho's run (not that it's his responsibility) put the Manchester City misfit one-on-one with the keeper, easily beating Stekelenburg from the top of the box.

An early goal feeds right into how Brazil loves to play under Dunga. They could stifle Dutch possession through Silva and Melo. Robben's disregard for passing the ball (it's beneath him, dammit) and van Persie's petulant invisibility also helped. Brazil soaked up the pressure, sprinted down the field on the counter with attacking fullbacks, and the Robinho-Kaka-Fabiano triangle perpetually frightened. Brazil could have been two goals up if not for Stekelenburg's marvelous 31st minute save on Kaka's curler. Meanwhile, the only times Holland tested Julio Cesar in the first half were Kuyt's narrow, low shot in the 11th and Sneijder's 36th minute free kick from approximately four miles away straight down the keeper's throat.

But it didn't matter in the end. I can't remember how many times I've written that you pay for not scoring more when a goal to the good. It's happened a lot.

Holland pulled one back less than ten minutes after the interval thanks to Sneijder's brilliance and an absolute mess from Melo and Julio Cesar. Sneijder's cross on a short free kick, Cesar somehow misses his punch, and it glances in off Melo's back. Should be Sneijder's as it was on target, but I'm not complaining either way.

The equalizer absolutely shell-shocked the Brazilians. Again, that was not supposed to happen. The Dutch dominated possession, finding an extra gear, before Sneijder got his deserved goal 15 minutes after the first, thanks to that man Dirk Kuyt. Kuyt, cleverly running into space, flicked a corner on for Sneijder's free header from four yards out. Ecstasy.

Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians completely lost the plot. Dunga broke down on the sideline, fortifying me with his delicious tears, and five minutes later, Felipe Melo was given his marching orders for a stupid, frustrated, typical stamp on Robben after conceding yet another soft foul. That combined with his assist perfectly encapsulates Melo.

It was never done and dusted; Brazil can terrify even with ten men, especially in crunch time, but the Dutch held out admirably. They stayed resilient, batting away every set play, including a crucial clearing header from Kuyt in the 82nd, while Ooijer did brilliantly to close down Kaka on a break in the 86th. Holland should have added a third on the break, but a win is a win is a win.

I expect to never, ever find it necessary to defend Dirk Kuyt from the haters after today. He was the only Dutch player who didn't disappoint in the first half and set up the crucial second goal, yet again the key man on a set piece. He kept Maicon occupied for long stretches, and had innumerable clearing defensive headers, including that vital one with eight minutes to play. Were he a step faster, he could have scored a game-sealing third after some jaw-dropping fancy footwork that would have sent hacks to the fainting couch were it performed by Messi, running past Maicon and Lucio as if they weren't there only to see Juan get back. He is utterly immense and I love him to bits.

I won't lie. I love seeing Brazil beaten, and it's especially awesome that Holland are the ones to do it. For all of South America's dominance, the best South American side was just beaten by the best European side. For once, the Dutch didn't fall apart in the face of adversity, and Dunga's well-organized team helped Holland to the victory by beating themselves in the second half. It's gonna be hard for Felipe Melo to show his face in Brazil. Dunga will be heavily criticized as well, but, honestly, he shouldn't be. Samba football is a thing of the past. You win games by beating hard to beat, and Holland won that battle today.