Thursday, March 31, 2011

INFTH MLS Predictions

Columbus vs FC Dallas- Unable to beat a Red Bulls side decimated by absences,  Columbus look like they are set for a difficult MLS '11. However, in Dallas, Columbus face opponents who have also struggled during the opening bouts of MLS. Last week Chris Wondolwski and San Jose shocked last season's finalists, and it's beginning to look like they should have tried harder to keep midfielder Dax McCarthy at the club.

This game kicks off on Friday night, so both teams will have the opportunity to steal a march on their conference rivals, making this match even more important. If one of these sides comes out the loser, then the pressure really will start to build, and if it is Dallas who come away with nothing, the words "one season wonder" may begin to be uttered.

Prediction: 1-1

Toronto FC vs Chivas USA- Despite an indifferent start to the season, Robin Fraser's Chivas team should fancy themselves against Aron Winter's "Canadian Ajax." Last week striker Martina was the hero for Toronto and if he can add to the hefty goal contribution promised by De Rosario, then Toronto could be headed for a better season than expected.

Last week, Chivas were beaten by reigning champions Colorado, in front of a Home Depot Center riddled with empty seats. Colorado were without strike duo Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, so Chivas should certainly consider that loss as a chance passed up.

I'm going to go with a Toronto win in this game, but I still don't quite fancy the team, especially their porous defense. If Chivas are to take anything from this game though, then they will have to hope that last year's breakthrough player Justin Braun is bang on form, and that he can score his first MLS goal of the 2011 season.

Prediction: 2-1

Vancouver vs Kansas City- Last weekend, both these team's supporters watched in horror as their two brand new designated players (and heroes from week one) were sent off, in the course of respective away  losses.

Obviously, both Eric Hassli and Omar Bravo will be suspended for this match, but with Teal Bunbury back from injury for Kansas and Atiba Harris looking good for Vancouver, those absences shouldn't prove to be much of a roadblock for either side.

Having watched both these teams defend poorly in their first two games, I think it is reasonable to expect an entertaining match. Sporting defenders in particular will still be having nightmares about Fire midfielder Pappa, and coach Peter Vermes will demand that his side improve their defensive play for this game.

Prediction: 2-2

New York vs Houston- Last week, Red Bulls coach Hans Baake will have breathed a huge sigh of relief after his team avoided defeat in Columbus despite a host of high profile absences. With Dane Richards, Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, Rafa Marquez and possibly Thierry Henry all returning for this game though,  Baake will demand nothing less than victory, so that New York can resume their assault on the Eastern Conference.

Houston were very luck last week to come out of Qwest Field with a point, after Seattle's profligacy gifted the Dynamo a first tally of the season. Dominic Kinnear's men took the lead in that game before being pegged back by a late equalizer from Steve Zakuani. Perhaps even more importantly, that game marked the return from injury of Brian Ching, a man who may well have a big role to play at Red Bull Arena.

Obviously, going into this game all the attention will be firmly focussed on teenage sensation Juan Agudelo, who grabbed plenty of headlines over the international break with a goal for the national team against Argentina. However, despite the American's strong start to the 2011 MLS season, Red Bulls fans should be careful to remain grounded, and not to pile too much pressure onto the shoulders of such a young player.

Prediction: 3-1

New England vs Portland- Steve Nicol's New England Revoloution side have started this season in the sort of form which propelled them to two straight MLS Cup finals a few years back. Shalrie Joseph looks back to his best, and even the referees appear to be on the Revs side, with Zack Shilawski's goal against DC standing despite a clear handball in the build-up.

On the other hand, John Spencer's Portland side have started this season in the worst way possible, with two straight defeats at the hands of the Colorado Rapids and Toronto FC. In both those games Portland looked shaky at the back and not particularly potent upfront, a combination which won't serve them too well over the course of the MLS season. However, Major League Soccer is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is still plenty of time for Kenny Cooper and the Portland Timbers to propel themselves up the Western Conference table.

Prediction: 3-0

Los Angeles vs Philadelphia- The in form Philadelphia Union will face their toughest challenge of the MLS season so far as they travel to the Home Depot Center to take on the LA Galaxy.

Last week, LA fell to what will probably prove to be their most humiliating defeat of the season, a 4-1 loss away to RSL. In that game, the Galaxy were totally overrun by the dynamic midfield duo of Espindola and Morales. Luckily for Bruce Arena and the rest of the Galaxy team, LA won't be facing quite as formidable a team this time around, and with Landon Donovan returning from international duty Galaxy fans will fancy their chances at rebounding with a win.

Based on results so far this season, the Union look like they are capable of making the playoff push that their consistency, or lack there of, stopped them from making in 2010. In Danny Mwanga, Sebastian Le Toux and Carlos Ruiz, Philly have a front trio more then capable of causing MLS defenses all kinds of problem, even LA's.

Prediction: 3-1

San Jose vs Seattle- A 1-1 draw with Houston last week has only contributed to the malaise existing around the Seattle Sounders. Having kicked the season off with two straight defeats, Seattle were expected to turn Houston over, but a combination of bad luck and profligacy in front of goal resulted in a disappointing 1-1 draw.

On the other hand, San Jose enjoyed a superb 2-0 win over FC Dallas last Saturday, a victory made even more significant by the goalscorer, Chris Wondolowski. Wondo was MLS's top marksman last season and if he can repeat that goalscoring feat this year, then San Jose fans should expect another play off push.

It would be interesting to see whether Zhigghi Schmidt position has head coach begins to come under a little scrutiny if the Sounders fail to win for the fourth game running on Saturday, but I've got a funny feeling that Fredy Montero will finally find his form, and propel Seattle to a much needed first three points.

Prediction: 1-2

Colorado vs DC United- Last weekends loss in New England has deflated the DC United balloon some what, a balloon that was blown up to its maximum capacity after an opening day, three-nil hammering of the Columbus Crew. Charlie Davies was the star in that match, and if he can come up big for United on Sunday, then Ben Olson's side may claim a superb scalp.

Colorado have looked very efficient this season, not particularly pretty on the eye but effective nonetheless. Without Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, many predicted that Colorado would struggle to beat Chivas USA, but the defending champions showed their mettle and dug deep to win 1-0. Those fighting qualities will stand the Rapids in good stead for the remainder of the season, giving the defending champs a great chance at repeating last year's terrific achievement.

While all the attention has been focussed on Charlie Davies with regard to DC United, new signings Josh Wolff and Dax McCarthy seem to have been forgotten. Wolff scored the opener against Columbus two weeks ago, and McCarthy has been badly missed by last year's losing finalists FC Dallas. If Wolff, McCarthy and Davies can all stay injury free this season, then there is a good chance that MLS's forgotten giant could make a return to the league's grandest stage.

Prediction: 1-1

INFTH Premier League Predictions

West Ham vs Manchester United- It's getting to that period of the season where the fixtures are just starting to run out. The smell of Spring is in the air, and for Manchester United fans that pleasant aroma is almost always coupled with anticipation of another silver lined season.

However, standing in the way of United's title charge this weekend is an inform West Ham side, for which the bnternational break came at exactly the wrong time. The Hammers were in great form, with the midfield triumvirate of Parker, Noble and Hitzelsperger linking well with new signing Demba Ba. Avram Grant will  hope that his side's latest coup (0-0 draw at Tottenham) was merely a continuation, and not a culmination of the Hammers' good form.

For United, the break couldn't have been more welcome, as it provided an ideal recuperation period for United's shattered back line. Rafael, O'Shea, Vidic and Brown are all either fit or well on their way to fitness, a fact that will come as a huge relief to avid supporters of Manchester United.

Prediction: 1-3

Birmingham vs Bolton- In a rematch of a recent FA Cup quarter final, Owen Coyle's Bolton side travel to St. Andrew's to battle relegation threatened Birmingham City.

Birmingham's drop in form since their cup final success has been well documented, so I fell no need to rehash the details of their recent poor results. The only stats that really need to be examined with respect to Birmingham are those pertaining to their current position in the league table, i.e. their paltry thirty-one points.

For Bolton, this game serves as another fixture in the build up to their semi-final clash with Stoke. Well clear of relegation, but still some way off Europe, Bolton can afford to turn their attentions toward that match, something that may well play into Birmingham's hands.

Prediction: 3-1

Everton vs Aston Villa- For most of this season Everton have been very poor. A combination of continued injury problems, and below par performances from key players have resulted in their dip down the table.

On the other hand, Villa haven't been much better, with Gerard Houllier's side fully entrenched in the relegation mire. It's amazing how bad Villa have been this season, especially as their forward line of Downing, Young and Bent have done so well for England in recent internationals.

With both sides off form, Everton will probably be tipped to win this game considering it's venue, but the Toffee's have been so poor at home this season that I struggle to pick them to win this game.

Surely, some time soon, Villa's attacking stars will click into gear, and I think this could be the day.

Prediction: 1-4

Newcastle vs Wolves- Of these two teams, it is Wolves that is in the deepest relegation hole, with news coming through this week that striker Kevin Doyle will miss the rest of the season through injury. However, if Mick McCarthy's side were to win this game, then it would be Alan Pardew's Newcastle United team who might have to start looking over their shoulder.

Wolves come into this game off the back of one of their biggest wins in sometime, a 1-0 victory over arch rivals Aston Villa, courtesy of a goal from recently capped winger Matt Jarvis. That win will have instilled some real confidence into the Wolves side, and I expect them to give a Newcastle a run for their money when the sides clash on Saturday.

Prediction: 2-1

Despite their current position of eleventh, Newcastle United sit only four points outside the relegation zone, and the Geordies will be well aware of the potential effects of a home loss against Wolves. It is vital that Newcastle stay up this year, so as to continue their march forward following relegation back in 2009, so a loss in this game would start to make a few people very nervous indeed.

Stoke City vs Chelsea- Much maligned for most of this season, Carlo Ancelotti's side seem to be gaining some much needed momentum. Brazilians David Luiz and Ramires guided the Blues to victory last weekend, but Chelsea fans will be looking for record signing Fernando Torres to provide the goods this time around.

There is a real feeling of euphoria around the Brittania Stadium, after an FA Cup quarter final win was followed by an emphatic 4-0 victory over Newcastle, one that palliated any lingering relegation fears. Stoke fans will understand that a win over Chelsea is unlikely, despite the quality of recent results, but I imagine that Tony Pulis would expect his side to grind a draw out of this one.

Prediction: 2-2

West Brom vs Liverpool- Since taking over for Roberto Di Matteo, Roy Hodgeson has done quite well as West Brom boss, and he will be looking to prove a point as his new side battle his former employers.

Not enough can be said about the remarkable renaissance Liverpool have enjoyed following the return of Kenny Dalglish. The Reds looked formidable last week as they ousted Sunderland by a score of two goals to nil, and that result was only the latest in a run of sparkling performances. The second goal of that gamehighlighted the quality of this Liverpool side, and in particular new signing Luis Suarez. Having danced through two defenders Suarez rifled a shot past Craig Gordon, which found the net despite being fired at the most acutest of angles. Suarez has been brilliant since signing in January, and that goal only served to underline his class.

Strike partner Andy Carrol meanwhile has ye to find the net in Liverpool colors, though to be fair he has been out injured for most of his stay in Merseyside. The former Newcastle man scored his first England goal midweek against Ghana, and Liverpool fans will hope that he can score a first goal for his club side, on the occasion of Saturday's trip to West Brom.

Prediction: 2-2

Wigan vs Tottenham- Once again, Tottenham have to be warned not to let their eyes stray from Saturday's trip to Wigan, to the more pressing matters of a Champions League Quarter Final First Leg match against Real Madrid on Tuesday.

The whole of Wigan breathed a sigh of relief last week as Maynor Figueroa's injury time winner gave the Latics a precious 2-1 win over fellow relegation candidates Birmingham City. Even after that game Wigan remain firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, but Roberto Martinez will hope that at least a point can be claimed from this encounter, and a drive up the table sparked.

Most of Spurs' players will come into this game off the back of appearances over the international break, and it will be interesting to see how their energy levels are effected by that. Certainly, the Spurs players will have to be back on form, with fully charged batteries, for Tuesday's trip to Spain, making a successful warm-up game an absolute must.

Prediction: 0-2

Arsenal vs Blackburn- Unfortunately for Arsenal, it does appear that Robin Van Persie will miss this game, but the team will still be boosted by the return of captain and best player Cesc Fabregas. Last time out or the Spaniard, it was his mistake which led to a Champions League exit, so Gunners fans will hope that Fabregas comes into this match with a clear head, all thoughts of silly back heels behind him.

Blackburn are another team slowly slipping into the relegation mixer, so Steve Kean will hope that his team can put up a staunch resistance to an Arsenal team that will be smelling blood. Key to his side's hopes will be  central defender Christopher Samba, the man most likely to be tasked with marshaling the back line for Rovers.

Arsenal's title hopes are already beginning to fade, and if all three points are not gleaned from this fixture,then Gunners fans can cancel all plans for celebratory parties and open top bus tours.

Prediction: 2-0

Fulham vs Blackpool- Revitalized by the return of star man Charlie Adam, Ian Hollaway's Blackpool side will be hoping to push out of the bottom quarter in the next few weeks.

However, if a push up the table is in the offing, then it is unlikely to start with a win at Craven Cottage. Mark Hughes' Fulham side are always tough to beat, even more so when they have the full backing of a vociferous home crowd.

With Bobby Zamora back from injury, and Clint Dempsey always a goal threat, Fulham certainly have the weapons to break down a fragile Blackpool defense, and if the home side manage to take an early lead, then it could be a very long afternoon indeed for the Tangerines.

Prediction: 3-1

Manchester City vs Sunderland- Difficult on paper, Steve Bruce may actually see this game as an opportunity to rack up a few more points. Midweek, Asamoah Gyan absolutely torched City defender Joleon Lescott, and if Ghanaian international Gyan can get into a one on one battle with Lescott there will only be one winner.

City were truly terrible against Chelsea last weekend, and Roberto Mancini will know that his side have to improve, or risk losing the fourth and final Champions League spot. As of now, City hold a four point lead over Tottenham having played a game more, and if Spurs beat Wigan on Saturday, then the pressure really will be focussed on the Sky Blues come kick off on Sunday.

Crucial to City's hopes in this game will be the form of their strikers, and with Tevez off form, Dzeko looking incapable of scoring in a brothel, let alone the Premier League, and Balotelli too busy throwing darts at reserve players to give a jot, that doesn't bode well.

Prediction: 0-1

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Five Things We Learned From The Last Week's International Fixtures

1. The Italians are a force to reckoned with- Post World Cup there seemed to be nothing but doom and gloom around the Italian national team. The 2006 champions had been dumped out at the first hurdle in arguably the weakest group in the competition. They were a team chalked full of veteran players, all of whom were without the legs to bring Italy to the next level. But since their debacle in South Africa, Italy have gone through a bit of a renaissance with new coach Cesare Prandelli bringing in a fresh wave of players. Antonio Cassano was brought back from exile, while Giampaolo Pazzini and Giuseppi Rossi were given first team places. Young defenders like Rannochia and Balzaretti (who was superb against Slovenia by the way) were also drafted into a side which is beginning to look like a force to be reckoned with. Prandelli has totally revamped the midfield, bringing in Aquilani, Motta and Montolivo in place of the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso and De Rossi. Against Slovenia Italy looked a fluid unit, solid at the back, but dangerous up front. Italy's one-nil win in that game virtually guaranteed them a place in next summers finals, a competition which will give us a huge indicator of what is to come for the Azzuri.

2. David Villa is a true legend- Okay, maybe we didn't need this week's international fixtures to tell us this, but Villa's double against the Czech Republic certainly reaffirmed the opinions of David Villa admirers everywhere. 1-0 down with half an hour to go, Spain were in deep trouble, but as they always say, "cometh the hour, cometh the man" and David Villa was certainly the man on this particular occasion. Under pressure after a goalscoring drought for Barcelona, Villa turned it on, scoring a superb goal to bring Spain level. Minutes later, Villa was once again placed in the pressure cooker, after the Spaniards were awarded a penalty, and with it a chance to win the game. Calm as ever, Villa tucked the ball away with aplomb giving the Furia Roja a precious 2-1 advantage. Come the final whistle, not only had Villa won the game for Spain, but he had also finally broken Raul's long standing goalscoring record for the national team. Villa had been on a bit of a drought for Spain since his penalty against Scotland equaled Raul's record, but following his brace last Friday, and subsequent claiming of the record, it may now be time for Villa to be dubbed the greatest ever Spanish national team player.

3. Holland want to move on from South Africa- It is truly a shame for Holland that after a brilliant showing in last summer's World Cup, the enduring image of their performance in South Africa will be that of Nigel De Jong's kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso. After a final with a record number of bookings, the Dutch were accused of dirtiness, and even negativity. For a country who's football has been so long defined by Johan Cruyff and the "Total Football" of 1974, these accusations were received with much sadness. However, since the tournament, Bert Van Marwijk has gone to all sorts of lengths to change the uncomplimentary label gained during last summer's excursions, with his most notable decision being to drop the aforementioned De Jong after a series of poor challenges in club play. Van Marwijk and the rest of the Dutch football world clearly want to be known for a more positive brand of football, and the team's two matches against Hungary both look to be a step in the right direction. In the first match, Barcelona's Ibrahim
Affelay and Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder were imperious in midfield, during a performance which was labelled "Barcelona like" by some. In the next match, Holland once again struck a high goal tally, with Dirk Kuyt in particular looking to be enjoying some fine attacking form. With a host of exciting forward players, both old and new, it seems like it will only be a matter of time before Holland are once again known as one of Europe's attacking juggernauts.

4. Miroslav Klose is the game's greatest international goalscorer- Known for his struggles at club level, Miro Klose once again proved this weekend that on the international stage he is still a force to be reckoned with. A brace against Kazakhstan continued a fine run of goalscoring form and, perhaps even more importantly, that double leaves him only a handful of strikes behind Germany's record marksman, Gerd Muller. At the World Cup, Klose equalled Muller's scoring record for that particular competition, and the striker will hope that he can go one better in the chase for Germany's overall goalscoring prize. So is Klose the world's greatest international goalscorer? His record is practically impeccable, and I can't think of any other player who have found the net so consistently, for such a long time, at such a high level. Certainly, there are better players than Klose on the international stage, Messi and Ronaldo are clearly superior athletes, but neither has quite managed to cut it at the World Cup, or even during run-of-the-mill type international matches. Unless one of those pair can translate their club form to the international stage, Klose will remain the game's greatest International goalscorer.

5. France are back- Much like fellow 2006 finalists Italy, the French World Cup campaign was a total debacle. Ridiculous infighting coupled with poor showings on the pitch led to an early exit from the World's most prestigious competition. However, since Laurent Blanc took over the reigns from Raymond Domenech, France have been much improved, and they're are currently cruising through their Euro 2012 Qualifying group. A win over Luxembourg last weekend marked the return to the national side of temporarily exiled World Cup flops Frank Ribery and Patrice Evra. With those two stars returning, and a host of young players such as Karim Bemzema, Yoann Gourcuff and Jeremy Menez promising a rich future, the French national team may be entering an exciting new era.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How England Rated vs Ghana

Joe Hart- Hart was a bit of a mixed bag in this game, with his kicking a little suspect, but he did make one superb stop in the first half to keep the score at 0-0.
Rating: 5

Leighton Baines: Arguably England's best player, Baines terrorized the Ghana defense with his incisive runs from deep. In the first half, his combination play with Ashley Young looked exceptional, and England fans should be safe in the knowledge that in Baines they have a player more than capable of filling in for Ashley Cole.
Rating: 8

Phil Jagielka- Disastrous throughout, Jagielka was the clear weak link in an otherwise solid English back four. The Everton man struggled with his positioning all night, and his passing out of the back no great shakes either.
Rating: 2

Gary Cahill- Personally, I thought Cahill was quite impressive on the event of his first full ninety with England. He looked solid at the back, and his passing ability provided a good transition from defense to midfield. Always a threat at corners, Cahill came close to scoring with a second half header, only to denied by a Ghanaian block.
Rating: 6

Glenn Johnson/Jolean Lescott- After a poor first half performance (especially in the crossing department), Johnson was replaced by Manchester City's Jolean Lescott. If possible, Lescott was even worse, giving away countless numbers of free kicks deep inside England territory. Lescott could not deal with the threat of Asamoah Gyan in attack, a fact which will surely be noted by Sunderland manager Steve Bruce.
Rating: Both 2

Jack Wilshere- In probably his poorest showing in an England shirt, Wilshere didn't look nearly as dominant as he was against Wales. With Arsenal out of all but one competition, Wilshere will be provided with some much needed rest, a bonus that will hopefully leave him full energized for the run-in.
Rating: 5

Gareth Barry- Captain on the night, but in terms of performance no different from the norm. Barry once again looked laborious in the center of midfield, poor in his passing and not a very effective shield to the defense. Scott Parker looked much better during England's win in Wales, so Barry's days as an England starter could be numbered.
Rating: 4 

James Milner- In all honesty, Milner was quite ineffective in midfield, making practically no impact either defensively, or in the attacking third of the pitch. His form has certainly suffered from a lack of first team opportunities at City, and his decision to leave Aston Villa is looking more and more unfortunate every week.
Rating: 4

Ashley Young- Lively in the first half, Young's play petered out badly in the second period, much like England's overall performance. However, it was his ball over the top which started the play that ended in Carroll goal, so it wasn't a totally wasted evening from the winger.
Rating: 6

Stewart Downing- Voted man of the match by the Wembley crowd, Stewart Downing enjoyed one of his best ever England performances to date. Downing terrorized the Ghanaian full backs with his trickery, and the Aston Villa man even claimed an assist, a cute flick from Young's long ball, which set up Andy Carroll to score.
Rating: 7

Andy Carroll- No doubt Carroll will get all the headlines following his first goal for the Three Lions, but actually, his overall play was quite poor. Coming off an injury, it is understandable that he was off the pace, which is why I won't criticize him too much here, especially as his finish on the goal was simply majestic.
Rating: 5

Overall, an England team made up of fringe players lacked fluidity (especially in the second half) while the defense was made quite porous due to the inept displays of Phil Jagielka and Jolean Lescott. On the other hand, England fans should be excited about the potential of Andy Carroll, with his first goal for the national team by far the highlight of an otherwise drab display.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Five Things We Learned From This Weekend's MLS Action

1. Hassli isn't the player we thought he was- No man better embodies the slogan "hero to zero" than French striker Eric Hassli. Superb last week, Hassli's two goals propelled the Whitecaps to a first win in Major League Soccer, and all the signs indicated that the forward player might become one of the league's few successful DPs. However, a week later, instead of lapping up the adoration of Vancouver's dedicated support, Hassli was facing their ire, after his sending off cost Vancouver at least a point in Philadelphia. No doubt, had his red card been received as consequence of a goal saving foul, or a harsh penalty decision, the player's reputation with the fans would have hardly been tarnished, but it was the nature of his dismissal which will rankle most with the Whitecaps' travelling support. Having already been booked for a pointless trip on defender Danny Calif, Hassli received his marching orders after a late tackle on Philly defender Valdes. Neither fouls were useful in stopping the Union's forward progress, rendering both of them totally pointless. Hassli now faces a one match ban, but come the day of his return, he'll have a lot of bridges to rebuild.

2. LA might not be any good this year- After a fine, opening day, away win at Qwest Field, it seemed certain that the LA Galaxy were ready to pick up from where they left off in last year's regular season, and continue to dominate Major League Soccer. However, that win was followed by an uninspiring one-one draw with Steve Nicol's New England side, and a week later, worse was to come. While defeat away at Real Salt Lake might not have been entirely unexpected, (Landon Donovan was away on international duty and star defender Omar Gonzalez was still injured) it is the manner of the absolute pounding that the Galaxy received which will hurt the most. From the off LA were second best, and by half time they were already three-nil down. Morales and Espindola were controlling the game for Real, and LA looked toothless in attack, even with Juan Pablo Angel on the field. Certainly, the voices which raised questions about the Galaxy's credentials last week, are going to start hitting fever pitch.

3. Colorado's MLS Cup triumph was no fluke- Lets face it, last year's MLS champions, the Colorado Rapids, were by no means the best Major League Soccer had to offer. They benefited from peaking at the right time, as well as a series of post season upsets which resulted in them not having to play New York or LA. This year however, Colorado are beginning to look like a side capable of dominating a regular season, with the team still delivering despite the absence of key players. Shorn of the likes of Omar Cummings and Conor Casey, Colorado still looked good value for their win against Chivas USA, a result which leaves them neck and neck with Real Salt Lake at the top of the Western Conference.

4. Wondo is no one season wonder- For any New York Red Bulls fan, the name Chris Wondolowski will still send shivers down the spine. Last year's top scorer in MLS caused the Red Bulls no end of problems in the Eastern Conference champions' play-off battle with San Jose. However, after a less than convincing first game against Real Salt Lake, questions were beginning to be raised about Chris Wondolowski's true capabilities. Countless numbers of players have succeeded one year only to crash and burn the next, and with zero goals from his first game, it looked as though last year's star might become this year's flop. And then came the FC Dallas game. Clearly ready to prove a point, Wondo was brilliant throughout, showing a superb touch and finish to blast San Jose into the lead, before displaying his predatory instincts, with a deft header to put his side 2-0 up. Those goals proved to be the match winners, and Wondolowski must take a huge amount of credit, for his ability to deliver under media scrutiny.

5. Portland could be in for a very long season- Whenever an expansion team comes into MLS there are always worries about the side's ability to cut it in the big league, and following a 3-1 collapse in Colorado, John Spencer's Portland Timbers side were beginning to be pushed into the "will struggle this season category," an opinion that was further validated by another defeat this weekend. On paper, an away loss to Toronto doesn't sound too bad, but in reality any game against a team as poor as Aron Winter's Toronto side should be seen as an ideal opportunity to pick up three points. Last week, Toronto were torn apart by this week's flop Eric Hassli, and pre-match Timbers fans would've been hopeful that star player Kenny Cooper could do likewise. However, all hopes were in vain as a double from Martina put pay to any Timbers dreams of a first MLS point.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Five Youngsters Who Starred Over The International Break

Neymar1. Juan Agudelo- Discussed before on this blog, Red Bulls youngster Juan Agudelo has been brilliant for both club and country over the last few months. Following up his first national team goal, the winner against South Africa, Agudelo scored his first goal in MLS, a solo effort which propelled the Red Bulls past Seattle. However, both those strikes were topped last night as Agudelo, called upon as a second half substitute for Jermain Jones, gave the USA a precious equalizing goal in their friendly match against Argentina. That goal serve to further enhance the youngster's burgeoning reputation, and with the youngster starting to catch the eye more and more,  it's only a matter of time before some of Europe's finest come calling.

2. Ashley Young- In the past Aston Villa winger Young has been overshadowed by the likes of Theo Walcott, David Bentley and Adam Johnson, but it seems that now the former Watford man has finally found a place for himself on the international stage. Young scored the winner in England's recent friendly against Denmark, and yesterday he was at it again, setting up both of England's goals in a 2-0 away victory against Wales. In recent weeks, the Villa man has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, and the general consensus seems to be that this season will be Young's last in Villa's claret and blue.

3. Aaron Ramsey- Before a terrible injury sustained against Stoke curtailed Ramsey's season in 2010, the Welsh midfielder had taken the Premier League by storm, tipped by many to be the leader of Arsenal's next generation of young players. However, that injury stymied his progress, and only recently has the twenty-one year old been able to reestablish himself on the club stage. Nevertheless, Wales manager Gary Speed presented him with the captain's armband following Gareth Bale's injury, and Ramsey acquitted himself well in a difficult game for the Welsh national team. Ramsey showed terrific poise in midfield, as well as the eye for a pass which characterized his play last season, play made all the more remarkable by the inept supporting cast which surrounded him.

4. Neymar- In Brazil, there are as many players with the prefix "next Pele" attached to them as there are new dawns and eras in England. As we all know, new dawns and eras in England will always inevitably end in failure, and more often than not Brazil's army of "next Pele's" have failed to live up to their home country's ludicrously high expectations. However, the feeling around Brazil is that this time they may actually have a player capable of emulating the achievements of footballing legend Pele. Since his arrival on the world stage in 2009, Neymar has gone from strength to strength, producing performances good enough to attract attention from the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona. But only in the last few months has the Santos youngster had the opportunity to play for the Brazilian senior side, with the attacker making his debut last summer against the USA. Neymar scored in that game, an achievement topped earlier today when, while making his third appearance for the national team, Neymar finally showed the world what he is capable of producing on the international platform, as his two goals inspired Brazil to a 2-0 victory over Scotland. Certainly, if he keeps up the form he displayed in this latest game, then many more caps will be coming his way.

5. Leandro Damiao- The least well known of this quintuple, Leandro Damiao was terrificly impressive in Brazil's win over Scotland. The striker looks to be highly athletic, and his ability in the air caused Scotland all sorts of problems, especially in the first half. The striker is only twenty-one, but he has already nailed down a place in the Internacional first team, no mean feat considering Internacional are the current South American champions. Damiao looks to be a perfect fit for Premier League football, tough and aggressive, but capable of producing traditional Brazilian silky skills. I must admit, I'd never heard of this player before today's match, but the profound impact he made on me during his seventy minutes on the pitch looks to indicate a bright future.

Late Ruiz Goal Gives Philly Ugly Win

As I mentioned in my midweek prediction column, the name on everybody's lips with regards to Vancouver was Erik Hassli. The forward scored twice on the Whitecaps' MLS debut, helping his side to a 4-2 victory over Canadian rivals Toronto FC. However, in this match, Hassli was to get his name in the paper for a totally different, less impressive, reason.

Interestingly, it was Vancouver who started the more lively of the two sides, with their pressing in midfield not allowing the Union to build up any rhythm in their passing. However, the expansion side were unable to carve out any clear cut opportunities, and their dominance of the first twenty minutes was only really defined by a couple shots from distance.

The first chance of the game came against the run of play, with Carlos Ruiz slipping a ball through for Seba Le Toux, who's shot was smothered by the onrushing Joe Cannon. Le Toux has started this season slowly, and Philadelphia fans will hope that he picks up a little pace, and starts to reproduce the form that led him to an MVP nomination last time around.

In the latter stages of what had been a poor half of football, things began to heat up, and Erik Hassli recieved a pointless booking for a trip on last week's hero, Danny Calif. That trip left the Frenchman walking on a knife edge for the remainder of the game, a fact that would become very important in the second half.

The half ended within a flurry of long range efforts from both sides, shots that never really went close to troubling either keeper and as the whistle blew, signalling an end to first half play, one wondered whether the quality of the game would pick up in the second half, there was certainly no way that it could get any worse.

Unfortunately for myself and all the other viewers of this game, the second period was no better than the first, with a free kick skied into the crowd by Sebastian Le Toux the closest either team came to scoring in the opening jousts of the second half.

But, on fifty-six minutes, we were finally to see a little action, as Hassli, coming in foolishly late on defender Valdes, received his marching orders, leaving Vancouver with ten men for the remaining thirty-five minutes or so.

Sensing blood, Philadelphia began to pick up the tempo of their play after the sending off, and a Carlos Ruiz bicycle kick from inside the six yard area stung the finger tips of goalkeeper Joe Cannon.

As the half wore on, it was looking as though it might just be "one of those days" for the Union, but on seventy-six minutes all the crowd's frustrations were suddenly vanquished. A shot from the edge of the arc bounced kindly to Le Toux inside the box, and last year's leading goalscorer for Philly beautifully squared the ball for the onrushing Carlos Ruiz, who just couldn't miss from a yard out. Philadelphia finally had made the breakthrough, and with a man advantage it seemed as though two straight wins were virtually guaranteed.

With Hassli off the pitch, and Atiba Harris struggling as lone striker, Vancouver never really looked like getting back into the game, and Philadelphia were able to easily see out the last fifteen minutes of the game.

The final whistle was greeted with a roar of celebration from the home crowd, who must have sensed that this season could be a huge improvement on last year.

Encouragingly for the Union, Peter Nowak's side had showed superb resolve in a difficult game, and had managed to grind out a hard fought win, despite Vancouver's fine defensive showing. If Philly can continue to grind out wins like they did yesterday, then Union supporters can look forward to an exciting season, one which should end with a playoff appearance. The only worry for last year's expansion side, should be the distinct lack of width showed in the first half. Without Justin Mapp, Philadelphia had no penetration from the wings, with forwards Le Toux, Ruiz and Mwanga, getting into each others way on countless occasions in the first half.

For Vancouver, this defeat will represent a huge disappointment, and I think that much of the ire coming from Whitecaps fans will be directed at DP Erik Hassli. Brilliant last week, it was Hassli's stupidity that cost Vancouver the game, and fans will hope that the Frenchman learns from his mistakes, and never lets his team down so baldy again.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Five Things We Learned From England's Win In Wales

England's midfielder Frank Lampard celebrates scoring a penalty during their Euro 2012, group G qualifying football match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, on March 26, 2011. - England's midfielder Frank Lampard celebrates scoring a penalty during their Euro 2012, group G qualifying football match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, on March 26, 2011.1.Wales are a Championship quality team- A pre-match glance at the team sheets indicated it, and a first half full of errors confirmed it, Wales are no better than a Championship team. A strike duo of King and Morison, members of Leicester City and Millwall respectively, must have had only the most weak kneed of England supporters shaking in their boots, and I highly doubt that even the appearance on the wing of Cardiff player Craig Bellamy had the England full backs sweating in the locker room.

2. Ashley Young is the real deal- Linked to Manchester United and Liverpool in the last few weeks, Ashley Young once again proved that he deserves to be England's first choice winger. Brilliant all game, Young got the ball rolling for England, winning a penalty inside ten minutes which Lampard calmly rolled into the bottom corner. Ten minutes later, and the Aston Villa man was at it again, with his superb cross teeing Darren Bent up for the easiest of close range finishes. With less than twenty minutes gone, Young on his own had arguably won England the game. Critics will point out that he saw much less action in the second forty-five, but that should be attributed only to an England team, who clearly took their foot off the petal during the second period.

3. Darren Bent is good, just not good enough- With three goals in his last three games for England, Darren Bent has finally translated his goalscoring form for club, into goalscoring form for country. However, despite his goal, I was wholly unconvinced by his display against Wales. Sure his strike was taken well, but on three or four occasions a lack of pace from the Villa man led to him missing out on several fine through balls from Wilshere. Had Jermain Defoe been on the pitch, surely those balls would have been pounced upon, and a couple more goals scored. For the sake of England, I hope that Capello stops persisting with Bent upfront, and instead opts for Carrol, Defoe or Crouch, as a partner for Rooney.

4. Lampard has remembered how to take penalties- Since his miss against Portsmouth at Wembley, all has gone wrong for Lamps from the penalty spot. That cup final miss was followed up by a failure against Japan in a pre-World Cup friendly game, and Lampard also missed one during one of Chelsea's early season Premier League games. However, the man who has for so long held penalty responsibilities for both club and country looks to have rediscovered his form from twelve yards, with a conversion against Blackpool followed up by another fine penalty earlier today. Lampard's rediscovery of penalty form will certainly come as a relief to Carlo Ancelotti, as number two Chelsea penalty takers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba have been erratic at best when called upon to take spot kicks.

5. Scott Parker is better than Gareth Barry- Superb for West Ham all season long, it seemed only a matter of time before Parker was given a decent run out for the national side. Knowing full well that this could be his last chance at gaining a starting spot in Capello's team, Parker took the bull by the horns, and produced the type of performance which must make England fans wonder what might have been in South Africa had West Ham's cult hero Parker been preferred to the deeply mediocre Barry. Not only did Parker protect the back four well during this match, but his passing was much more accurate than that which is produced by Barry, and one would hope that in the future the former Chelsea man will get the nod in midfield, ahead of one of England's many World Cup flops.

Returning Zakuani Saves Seattle

Steve ZakuaniAhead of their game against Houston, Seattle were boosted by the return of one of their star players, Steve Zakuani. Zakuani's injury had caused him to miss Seattle's first two matches of the season, games against LA and New York respectively. Both those ties had ended in 1-0 defeats, and the hope around the Sounders camp was that this game would bring a better result.

The match started with the Sounders on top, and on seven minutes O'Brien White showed his pace in attack, beating a defender to the ball before winning a corner for his side. Seattle were starting to dominate, and a Brad Evans shot from long range set the attacking ball rolling for the hosts.

After two goalless performances against New York and LA, the pressure was on Seattle's strikers to find the net, and with the trio of White, Montero and Zakuani looking lively, it seemed only a matter of time before one of them broke the deadlock.

As the half dragged on, Seattle continued to create chances, and on twenty six minutes the impressive Erik Friberg whipped in a cross, that White headed towards goal, only to denied by a flying save from Houston keeper Hall. With chance after chance being wasted by the home side, the risk of  a sucker punch goal became more and more apparent, and with forty-one minutes on the clock, the Sounders' misses were finally punished.

Having won a free kick on the edge of the arc, a Houston player tapped the ball to midfielder Carlton Palmer, who let leash with a ferocious strike that rattled against the crossbar. First to react to the ensuing penalty area mayhem was Jeff Cameron, who bulleted a shot into the back of the net via a deflection and the crossbar. Houston were 1-0 up, and with Qwest Field silent, one could sense all Seattle's worst premonitions coming true, all at once.

At half time the mood around Qwest Field was less than jubilant, and as the second half started off an air desperation started to set in around the ground.

In all honesty, the first fifteen minutes of the second half were less than pretty, with both teams wasteful in possession, and balls being sprayed out of play at random.

Seattle seemed to have lost their creative edge, with Montero and Zakuani virtually non existent for much of the second period. Tension was beginning to build, and one could feel the pressure on Zhiggi Schmidt's side building, like a green tidal wave, gaining ferocity with every passing second.

But, on seventy-nine minutes, all the anxiety around the ground was alleviated. One of Friberg's trademark whipped crosses was deflected into the path of Zakuani who couldn't miss from a yard out with the goal gaping. Finally, Seattle were level, and with ten minutes to go a winner was certainly not out of the question.

However, Houston had other ideas, and Dominic Kinnear's side continued to put on the pressure, rather then drop back into their defensive shell. In fact, it was the visiting side who came closest to grabbing a winner, as substitute Brian Ching could only send his headed chance wide of Kasey Keller's goal.

Time was running out for both teams to grab a winner, but when the board went up for four minutes of added time, the entire crowd roared in expectancy. With Rosales, Montero, Jaqua, Friberg, and Zakuani on the pitch, Seattle had more than enough attacking initiative to win the game, a result that their fans were desperately hoping for.

Unfortunately for the Sounders', a win was to prove a step too far, and the side were forced to settle for their first point of the 2011 MLS campaign, courtesy of a first goal of the season from Steve Zakuani.

Zhiggi Schmidt will probably be pleased by the invention the Sounders showed in attack, particularly in the first half, where White, Zakuani and Montero combined well. However, once again a Seattle performance was defined by missed chances, and if the Washington based team can't figure out how to finish, then it could be a very long season indeed.

For Houston, this result also marks a first point of the 2011 MLS season, and, as I pointed out in my weekly prediction column, Houston probably would have taken that point ahead of play. The atmosphere at Qwest Field is always hostile for the visiting side, and I think Kinnear and his team will actually be quite chuffed that they emerged from the cauldron, unscathed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Brazilian Gives Italy Precious Win

Slovenia 0 Italy 1: match reportWhether you believe that Thiago Motta should be allowed to play for the Italian national team or not, it has to be admitted that his goal against Slovenia may well see Italy into the group stage of the 2012 European Championships.

Going into this game, Italy sat top of Group C, three points clear of closest rivals Slovenia. Most Italians would probably have settled for a point, but under Cesare Prandelli, Italy have shown that they have more to their game then just defensive resolve.

In fact, in the build-up to this match, attention was more focussed on Italy's attacking dilemmas than their defensive ones. In Cassano, Pazzini and Rossi, Italy have three top class strikers at their disposal, and with only two slots available in the line-up, the question was, who would end up on the bench?

As it transpired, Prandelli elected to go with the more experienced duo of Pazzini and Cassano, with the in form Giuseppi Rossi consigned to the bench. Cassano and Pazzini combined to brilliant effect during their time at Sampdoria, and the hope around the Italy camp was that the pair would once again produce, this time in the colors of the Azzuri.

During the opening jousts of the match it was, unsurprisingly, the hosts who started the better, with Slovenia winning a flurry of corners early on. However, the tide was soon to turn, and on six minutes Udinese keeper Handanovich did well to keep out an effort from Fiorentina midfield player Ricardo Montolivo.

Italy were in the ascendancy, and Pazzini hit the outside of the post from a tight angle, before Robert Koren produced Slovenia's first meaningful effort of the game, a curling shot that was saved by the outstretched fingertips of Gigi Buffon.

As the half came to a close, Cassano and Pazzini began to combine to good effect, with the latter just missing the ball, following the former's cushioned header.

Come the half time whistle, Prandelli was probably the happier of the two managers, with the Italian coach surely satisfied by his side's solid display. Italy kept the ball well in the first half, albeit without the creation of too many chances, and Prandelli would certainly have been wary of the threat posed by the host's counter attack.

The second half started much like the first, with Slovenia enjoying a flurry of corners before Italy began to assert their dominance. Italy looked lively in attack, and on fifty two minutes, Handanovich made a fine double save to keep out Cassano and then Aquilani, but with the goalkeepers on form, it was beginning to seem like the fixture was destined to end a nil-nil draw.

But, on seventy minutes, the whole complexion of the game changed as Motta, latching onto Balzaretti's pass, fired a shot past the previously unstoppable Handanovich, to score his first goal in the colors of the Italian national team. Italy were 1-0 up and it was hard to see anything but an Azzuri win from then on.

During the final twenty minutes of the game, Italy did well to keep out Slovenia, with the impressive defensive combination of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, proving impossible for the home side to get past.

Italy had won, and in doing so had moved six points clear of their opponents, surely insuring a place at next years European Championships.

The casual observer, seeing the 1-0 scoreline, might have been inclined to see this game as a "typically Italian affair", without much goal mouth action, but with, of course, a win for the Azzuri. However, this game was nothing like that, the Italians continued to attack even after going 1-0 up, and their first substitution following the goal was the introduction of striker Giuseppi Rossi, not exactly a defensive maneuver. Another aspect of Italy's win that shouldn't go unnoticed, was the role that attacking full back Balzaretti played in the victory. The Palermo player caused all sorts of problems with his runs up and down the wings, and it was his pass that set up Thiago Motta for his goal. Again, more proof that this Italian side is different than all the rest.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

INFTH MLS Predictions

 Seattle Sounders vs Houston Dynamo- In the first Friday night match of the 2011 MLS season, Zhiggi Schmidt's Sounders try to bounce back from their disappointing start to the season.

When the fixture Gods gave the Sounders matches against the best team in the West and then the best game in the East, fans of the two year old MLS franchise must have seen the writing on the world. However, supporters would have hoped for at least one goal from these two, difficult, games, and with the number of chances that they squandered against LA, one is only the least that should have been expected.

Meanwhile, Houston haven't exactly been setting the league alight with their start, and a 1-0 home loss to the Union was made even more embarrassing by a Dominic Oduro (now of Chicago) miss in front of an open goal.

Given their difficult start and the quality of Seattle's play at home, Houston would probably settle for a point in this match, though a maximum haul could potentially ignite Houston's season.

Prediction: 2-1

Toronto vs Portland- Aron Winter must have been punching the air with celebration when he saw that Toronto had been scheduled to play against two expansion teams in their first two games, but things didn't quite go to plan last week as Atiba Harris and Eric Hassli led the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 4-2 victory in Toronto's opener.

Meanwhile, John Spencer's Portland side didn't fare too much better, albeit against slightly sterner competition in the form of MLS Cup holders Colorado Rapids. In the first forty-five minutes of that game, Portland looked shell shocked and at half time they were 3-0 down and clearly out of the game. However, in the second half they played with much more poise and confidence, and the Timbers' travelling fans even got to see a first goal in MLS for the expansion side, courtesy of DP Kenny Cooper.

If Portland are to grab their first MLS win they they will certainly look to Cooper, who, if he can rediscover the scoring form he displayed at Dallas prior to his move to Germany, could lead Portland to a decent league  finish.

Prediction: 2-0

Chicago vs Kansas City- There is clearly a feel good feeling around the Sporting KC camp after the ushering in of a new era in franchise history was quickly followed by a 3-2 opening day win over Chivas USA, courtesy of two goals from debutant Omar Bravo.

As I wrote earlier this week, the attacking triumvirate of Bunbury, Kamara and Bravo could lead to success for Sporting this season, and with rookie Sapong also chipping  in with the odd goal, their could be one of the more dangerous in the league.

Obviously, due to a combination of international commitments and injury, Peter Vermes will be unable to call upon his top three attackers, but Bravo and Sapong alone should have more than enough to trouble the Fire defense.

Chicago kicked off with a solid, 1-1 draw with FC Dallas, a result all involved with the Fire will be delighted about, especially considering Dallas's superb home form last season. This week the Fire added strikes Dominic Oduro and Gabriel Ferrara to the squad, and fans will hope that those two signings add depth to a forward line led by Uruguayan Diego Chaves, the Fire's goal scorer against Dallas.

Prediction: 2-2

Philadelphia vs Vancouver- Since their season opener, the name on everybody's lips with regard to Vancouver has been Erik Hassli. The Frenchman scored twice against Toronto and his combination with Atiba Harris looked good in that game. It will certainly be very interesting to see how the duo fare in this game.

Philly also got off to a superb start as well, with a 1-0 win over former champions Houston Dynamo. Danny Califf got the winner in that game, but one suspects that the men Vancouver will be looking to stop in an attacking sense will be exciting strike duo Sebastian Le Toux and Danny Mwanga. The pair shone brightly in the Union's first season, and there will be big expectations on them for this year.

Despite their fine start, I'm going to have to go with Philadelphia for this gamen as I struggle to see Vancouver succeeding on their first ever MLS away trip.

Prediction: 3-1

Colombus vs New York- All the attention going into this game has been focused on the international break's damaging effect on the Red Bulls' squad depth. Last weeks star, Juan Agudelo, will be playing for the US against Argentina, while Marquez, Ream, Richards, Miller and Bouna Condoul will also be unavailable. To make matters worse, Thierry Henry remains doubtful after sustaining a hamstring injury in training earlier this week.

Colombus got off to a terrible start this season, with a 3-1 away loss at RFK Stadium in a performance described as "the worst possible." Only a late Robbie Rogers penalty saved the Crew the ignominy of being shut out against 2010's worst team, but one would hope that they fare better on the day of their home opener.

This is of course a rematch of the 2008 MLS Cup final, but the dynamics going into this one have changed immensely over the two year period separating the games. Now, the Red Bulls are the cream of the East, and one struggles to see 2008's MLS champions (The Colombus Crew) mounting any kind of playoff charge two season on from their famous triumph.

Prediction: 0-0

New England vs DC United- It's difficult to stress how much Charlie Davies' first two goals in a DC shirt will have boosted the morale of the striker himself, as well as everyone else involved with Ben Olson's side. Taking on the former US national forward was a risk for DC, but if Davies continues with the kind of form he displayed last weekend, then that risk will have been proved more than worthwhile.

New England kicked off their 2011 campaign with a 1-1 draw away at LA, and they could've done even better if Shalrie Joseph's late effort had been aimed a couple of inches further left. A win in LA would have been considered an enormous scalp though, and I think Steve Nicol will be more than satisfied with their solitary point.

It's difficult to predict the result of this game, especially considering that it is the Revs' home opener. Based on last week's results, DC would be an easy call for the win, but I'm starting to get a funny feeling about New England this year, they looked good in LA, and with Joseph over some personal problems, they could mount a push for the playoffs.

Prediction: 2-1

FC Dallas vs San Jose- San Jose will consider themselves unlucky to have lost to RSL last week, and had Nick Rimando not been on such superb form then Jason Kreis' side may have found themselves defeated by last year's Playoff surprise.

Dallas started out with a disappointing 1-1 home draw with Chicago, and Schellas Hyndman will expect more from last year's finalists in this game. Key to Dallas' hopes is, obviously, star play maker Davide Ferreira, and if the 2010 MVP can rediscover his form of last season, then we can expect another solid campaign from the Texans.

Frankie Yallop will have to hope that forward Chris Wondalowski continues from where he left off last term, if the Californian team are to mount any kind of charge this season. The Wondalowski-Convey combination was what launched San Jose towards their conference final appearance, and the pair will have to fire again this time around, if San Jose are to repeat their playoff form or, who knows, maybe go one better.

Prediction: 2-0

Real Salt Lake vs LA Galaxy- In by far the most enticing of this weekend's MLS ties, a Donovanless LA will have to dig deep if they are to triumph in Salt Lake City.

Two years ago these two sides met in the MLS Cup final, and LA were upset by Jason Kreis' superb team. One question looming over Real's season this time around though, is how they will cope with the dual responsibilities of MLS play and a Concacaf Champions League run.

Questions have been raised about LA's forward line following their 1-1 draw with New England, but with Angel back in the starting line-up, it's hard to see this LA team struggling to score goals, even without the now departed Edson Buddle. Angel will relish working off David Beckham's consistently impeccable service, but we'll really only see the best of the striker when he has both Becks and Donovan behind him.

Prediction: 2-1

Chivas USA vs Colorado- Colorado got their title defense off to the ideal start last weekend with a convincing 3-1 win over expansion side Portland Timbers.

Meanwhile, Chivas were beaten 3-2 by the newly branded Sporting KC, and will hope that a better home result is gleaned from this match. Former Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad will be glad that he isn't tasked with combating the pace of Colorado striker Omar Cummings, as the Jamaican striker will be absent due to international commitments.

However, the Californians will have to deal with striker Conor Casey, who was highly inspirational during the defending champion's 2010 playoff run.

Prediction: 1-2

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Should Mario Balotelli Be Given A Second Chance?

When Mario Balotelli left Inter Milan to reunite with former manager Roberto Mancini, a few eyebrows were raised. Balotelli was notorious for his attitude problems, and fans wondered whether  a striker yet to be truly proven at the highest level was worth the 24 million pounds that Manchester City payed for him.

However, in his first few weeks at City, thing seemed to be going alright, and the Italian came off the bench to score on his debut in a Europa League away match. Unfortunately, Balotelli also sustained a nasty knee injury which would see him sidelined for the next few months. But the moody, Milanese front man had already won over the heats and minds of the City faithful, and during the Sky Blues' next home match, a 3-0 win over Liverpool, chants of "You're just a shit Balotelli" could be heard every time then Liverpool striker Fernando Torres touched the ball.

Having finally gotten over his niggling knee injury, Balotelli made his full Premier League debut away at Wolves, before the epitome of his career, a match at West Brom, where, having scored a brace, he subsequently got himself sent off, an early bit of foreshadowing of the trouble that was set to come.

With his first dismissal in English football, and a series of petulant outburst towards players, managers and referees alike, Balotelli had shown the world that his frequent temper tantrums at Inter were not simply aberrational events that would cease once he left the hostile environment of Italian football, but traits that he would likely carry with him for the remainder of his career.

Fast forward to March, and having enjoyed a decent run of goal scoring form, Balotelli is at it again, seeing red for the second time, after an assault on a Dynamo Kiev player during City's Europa League exit at the hands of the Ukranians.

Following that match, Roberto Mancini made it clear to one and all that he was sick of Balotelli's behavior and would continue to drop him until he improved his attitude. Who knows how those comments effected Super Mario, the next time his name was in the paper was in a headline about bib troubles, and when he did take the field again, during a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, he did little to relieve himself of the growing tide of media  pressure.

The truth of it is that in England the media have no time for the  likes of Balotelli, no time for mercurial geniuses, prone to sudden lapses of form, fitness and attitude. We've seen it in the past with the likes of Matt Le Tissier who hardly kicked a ball for England despite being arguably the most talented player of his generation. Balotelli is clearly, ineligible to play for the English national team, but the  comparison is still valid. The problem with Le Tissier's game was his lack of fitness, while for Balotelli it is his attitude. In England the flawed genius cannot be appreciated in the way it can in other countries, part of the reason for the English National team's technical ineptitude throughout much of its history. Balotelli embodies everything that the English dislike about footballers, he's pampered, doesn't work hard, hardly seems to care, and he possesses the type of technical genius which is so often wasted on an English audience.

Maybe twenty years ago the fact that Balotelli is black could have been added to that list, but to their credit the English have done well to root racism out of the game, in ways that the Spanish and Italians have failed to do so. Part of the reason Balotelli left Italy was because of the constant monkey chants, ones that supposedly riled him up, putting his fiery temper at risk of spiraling out of control.

So should Balotelli be given a second chance? He seems to have dug himself an awfully big hole, but with Tevez injured and Dzeko flattering to deceive, Mancini may be forced to turn to his controversial Italian recruit. In the closing months of the season, Balotelli will have the opportunity to mend what has become a fractured relationship with the City support, and if that relationship is not sufficiently sturdy come the end of the season, we may see the man with the tire tracks on his head, roll his way into pastures new.

Should Balotelli be given a second chance?

Is Balotelli good enough to make his petulance acceptable?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

INFTH International Predictions

Spain vs Czech Republic- In one of the more compelling international fixtures coming up this week, Vicente Del Bosque's Spain side take on a Czech team looking to bounce back from their failure to qualify for South Africa 2010.

Spain currently sit top of Group I with the maximum total of nine points, three more than the Czechs. However, if the team recently shorn of legends like Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller can steal a win in Spain, then the group would be thrown wide open, with even third placed Scotland being allowed back into the equation.

One interesting subplot to this match will be David Villa's attempt to finally move alone as the top scorer in the history of the Spanish national team. Villa equaled Raul's record with a penalty against Scotland, but has since gone without a goal in national team colors. Adding to the pressure will be the Spaniard's recent failure to score for league leaders Barcelona, a run that he has called "unlucky."

Prediction: 3-1

Wales vs England- If this match had been played a month ago then I think that without doubt England would have been heavy favorites to come out on top. However, with Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale back in the side, Gary Speed's Wales side looks a lot more formidable.

Currently, England sit in second place behind Montenegro in their group, but one imagines that that will change in the near future, with Montenegro unlikely to keep up their fine qualifier form. Also, this match will mark the return of the captain's armband to the forearm of the shamed John Terry, who was stripped of the captaincy last year after an alleged affair with the ex-partner of friend and teammate Wayne Bridge.

Earlier today John Terry admitted that he was not "everyone's cup of tea" and with many an onlooker feeling sorry for now former captain Rio Ferdinand, Terry will know that he has a lot to prove with his performance during this game.

Prediction: 0-2

USA vs Argentina- A couple years ago Argentina and the US played out a drab, nil all draw at the old Giant's Stadium, but the organizers of Saturday's marquee friendly game will hope that this time around a more exciting game is forthcoming.

It looks as though Argentina will be bringing all the big guns to New York, and Bob Bradley will see this match as an ideal opportunity for his troops to test themselves against superstars of the likes of Lionel Messi, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Pastore.

Watching from the sidelines will be hordes of anxious MLS clubs, praying that their star players avoid injuries in a fixture that will unfortunately disrupt the start to the 2011 MLS season, leaving many clubs with thin rosters for this weekend's round of fixtures. The New York Red Bulls have been particularly badly hit, with last week's hero Juan Agudelo and last year's Rookie of the Year, Tim Ream, both called up for national duty.

Prediction: 2-2

Scotland vs Brazil- Let's face it, the practically inept Tartan Army have no right even to tie the bootlaces of the Brazilian national team, but as we all know international friendlies are an opportunity for teams to take on sides that they wouldn't normally face (in this case due to the consistent absence of a certain side from World Cup action).

Lately, Brazil seem to have found a second home in Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, with the London arena a convenient meeting point for Brazil's stars, most of whom ply their trade in Europe. It will certainly be interesting to see how the likes of Scott Brown fare against classy Brazilians of the ilk of Robinho and Ramires, though doubtless the highlight of the event for any neutrals attending the game, will be the nostalgia filled reminiscences of the large, drunk man, in the kilt two rows down, reminding all who will listen to him about Archie Gemmill, dancing through the Holland defense at will in '78.

Prediction: 0-2

Monday, March 21, 2011

Five Things We Learned From This Week's MLS Action

1. Charlie Davies is back- More than a year ago, US and Sochaux forward Charlie Davies was seriously injured in a car accident, ruling him out of Bob Bradley's squad for the 2010 World Cup. Now, eighteen months later, Davies is back, with rejuvenated MLS club DC United. Last weekend, Davies scored twice against Colombus on the day of his first competitive match action since the crash. His second goal in particular was classic Davies, with the pacey striker knicking the ball off a defender before rounding the keeper to score. Certainly, if Charlie Davies can keep up this fine, goal scoring form, his return to the US will be very short lived.

2. Sporting KC are more than a fancy new name- New name, new stadium, new DP and hopefully a new start for the former "Kansas City Wizards" as the newly branded Sporting KC begin an exciting new era in MLS history. Cursed with a run of away games to kick off the season, Sporting got off to an ideal start on Saturday as new signing Omar Bravo scored twice on his debut. If Bravo can continue to score goals, then he, coupled with the double threat of Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury, should form part of an exciting attacking triumvirate, capable of causing MLS defenses all sorts of problems.

3. Juan Agudelo is better than Altidore- After starring with the national team during a recent match against South Africa, Agudelo once again showed his class with a stunning effort, that gave the New York Red Bulls a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders. Agudelo showed all the characteristics of a top class center forward, displaying strength and pace to shrug off his marker, before producing a devastating finish that left Kasey Keller with no chance. Bulls fans will certainly hope that Agudelo continues to make his mark the season, and beyond, possibly eclipsing another American forward, Villareal's resident flop, Jozy Altidore.

4. Juunniinnhhoo- Lets face it, when Juninho crashed the Sounders' net with a stunning drive from outside the area, none of us saw it as a sign of things to come. However, 1-0 down early doors, the LA Galaxy once again relied on the midfielder to get them out of jail, with a powerful drive from long distance giving the Galaxy a deserved point. Just today writer Kyle McCarthy wrote an interesting article about LA's striking deficiencies, but with Juninho popping up with screamers every week, who needs a forward?

5. The Caps aren't just here to make up the numbers- As one of's MLS analysts put it, it wouldn't take much testicular strength to predict both the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers to struggle during their debut seasons in MLS. However, the Whitecaps have done their best to prove this thought wrong, and their victory in MLS' first Canadian derby showed that they mean business. DP Eric Hassli looked good, scoring the Whitecap's first MLS goal, and the fact that the expansion team was able to bounce back after De Ro's equalizer shows that the team have the mental strength to succeed in MLS.

Five Things We Learned From This Week's EPL Action

1. Lehmann's return can't come soon enough- With the season rolling into that crucial stage where titles are truly won and lost, it is amazing to think that probably the most talented team in the division are likely to miss out on an honor this year, due to a lack of quality in a position that used to be dominated by the legendary David Seamen. In another horrendous display at West Brom, Manuel Almunia reminded us why he had dropped to third choice Arsenal keeper. And with the man he stole the number one jersey from coming out of retirement, Almunia's return to the Arsenal first team could be very short lived indeed.

2. Never Write Off United- Lets face it, the "never write off United" cliche has been one used so often that now a days it almost does not mean anything. Year after year United have fought back from adversity displaying the never say die attitude that epitomizes Sir Alex Ferguson. However, with the wily Scotsman in the stands for Bolton's trip to OT it looked as though even that fight wouldn't be enough to ward off an exciting Bolton side. Arise, Dimitar Berbatov, and the man who has been top scorer all season proved that he is just as good as some Mexican upstart with a funny nickname.

3. Birmingham are in real trouble- From cup winners, to likely relegation candidates, Birmingham's fall in grace since that triumph at Wembley has been dramatic. Losses at home to West Brom and away to Wigan have seen Alex Mcleish's men drop into the bottom three, and with every passing week it seems, they are falling deeper and deeper into the relegation mire. Who knows, maybe next year the Npower Championship will have a European representative.

4. There's more to Sideshow Bob than failed murder attempts- From hero to villain, Matt Groening's Sideshow Bob has found a new hobby: football. Having failed to kill off Bart Simpson, Bob has changed his name to David Luiz and started a career in the world's most popular sport, one that has earned him a cult following at Stamford Bridge. Having already found the net against United, the former Benfica man was at it again with a precious late goal to salvage a win for Chelsea in their home match against European rivals Manchester City. Not available in the Champions League this season, Blues supporters should feel confident in the knowledge that their new Brazilian recruit can ensure that next season, he is.

5. Jonny Evans is useless- A microcosm of everything that has been wrong with Manchester United this season, Jonny Evans has added thuggish tackling to his arsenal of tricks. Given a rare start due to United's defensive injury crisis, Evans did his best to take Stuart Holden's leg home as a souvenir, and with the American now out for six months, one imagines that an apology has to be in order.