Football As Never Before
We inch ever closer to the moment when we all stop pretending there’s any difference between “sport” and “culture.”

We inch ever closer to the moment when we all stop pretending there’s any difference between “sport” and “culture.”

Here’s an article by FANB’s Robert Cavanagh of fantasy football. Enjoy! And hopefully we’ll have more here soon.

England and Liverpool

Roy Hodgson’s England are just a few moments away from kicking off their inevitably disastrous Euro 2012.  There are, if you’re an England fan, a distressingly high number of Liverpool players in the English team.  There also are, if you’re a Liverpool fan, a distressingly high number of Liverpool players in the English team. No good can come of this. 

Part of me suspects this is Roy Hodgson’s final revenge on the club that unceremoniously kicked him to the curb last year.  Call up a bunch of current Liverpool squad members, then rub eyes in gleeful celebration as Steven Gerrard’s groin muscle ejects itself from his body and the whole team goes down in flames to howls of derision from the European media.  Thus driving a stake through the team’s heart for next season.

So what’s the best case scenario, from this Liverpool fan’s perspective? 

1.  Steven Gerrard plays reasonably well, and everybody agrees it’s not his fault England went 3 and out. 

2. Andy Carroll comes on as a sub against France, scores a goal at some point, and everybody agrees it’s not his fault England went 3 and out.

3. Glen Johnson gets abducted by Ukrainian white supremacists after the first game. Stewart Downing and Martin Kelly then goe on a heroic rescue mission to save him, allowing everyone to forget that Liverpool generally spent last season acting like a bunch of white supremacists themselves. Sadly, Downing dies of wounds suffered during the rescue.

4. Nobody mentions Jordan Henderson.

Champion’s League Final

I’ve been looking forward to this all season. The world’s two biggest clubs going head to head. The arrogant brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo vs. the lightning-in-a-tiny-bottle genius of Lionel Messi. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the ultimate clas—-

Wait.

What the fuck happened?


The upset of the Spanish giants in the Champion’s League semi-final leaves me in something of a quandary. Chelsea and Bayern Munich are both respectable clubs with talented players, but it’s hard not to see Saturday’s game (11:30 am on the Left Coast of these United States) as anticlimactic, particularly after the drama of last weekend’s EPL finale. Unless you’re in Munich or North London, there’s not much to get fired up about.

So who to root for? Bayern are in some respects the Green Bay Packers of European football. They’re a proper club, owned by the fans, who elect a corporate board. That appeals to my sense of democratic populism, but on the other hand they’re also the richest club in Germany and a perennial powerhouse in the Bundesliga. Chelsea were historically outsiders in the EPL, but that all changed when Roman Abramovich brought his billions and the evil genius of Jose Mourinho to the side. Mourinho is long gone, but they’re still fairly villainous. I love Didier Drogba’s talent, but he’s a flopper, and John Terry is the Snidely Whiplash of the EPL. Happily, though, Terry won’t be playing because he idiotically got himself sent off in the semi-final against Barcelona. Congratulations, John! Hope you enjoy watching. Sorry you’ll have to wait till you play for England to blow an important penalty kick. Instead, we get Sideshow David Luiz, who’s probably good for a goal at both ends.

Chelsea aren’t loveable, but they are slight underdogs. The game is in Munich, so Bayern are clearly the betting favorites. But they’ll also feel the pressure to force the issue, which plays into Chelsea’s tactical set up perfectly. Chelsea have never won the European Cup, which Abramovich desperately wants. Undercutting my sympathy for him and Chelsea will be the obvious bias of Sky’s British commentators. I love to watch the EPL but I fucking hate the English! USA USA!

Though I’m not sorry to see Terry go, it’s unfortunate that the game has been decimated by injuries and UEFA’s draconian yellow card policy. Chelsea’s attacking midfielder Ramires, who’s been their most consistent player all season, is suspended along with Terry. Ditto Bayern’s tackling midfielder Luis Gustavo and their swashbuckling fullback Alaba, who was probably the man most responsible for taking out Real Madrid.

The general wisdom seems to be that the tactical matchup will make for a game that’s tense but sadly lacking in much end to end action. Chelsea will probably sit fairly deep in their own half and invite Bayern to take the ball and try and play through them. The critical matchup will be between Bayern (and former Chelsea) winger Arjen Robben and Chelsea FB Ashley Cole. Bayern will seek to isolate Robben on Cole by playing two out-and-out wingers, Robben on the right and Franck Ribery on the left. They’ll then try to stretch Chelsea’s defense by switching the ball from side to side quickly and attacking in those wide areas. Bayern will be thrilled from whatever change Franck Ribery gets from vulnerable Chelsea RB Jose Bosingwa, but the key matchup will be on the right. Robben’s a left-food player playing on his team’s right side, so he’ll try to cut in on his stronger foot and look to shoot or play in his teammates. You’ll probably see this time and again throughout the match.  He’s very quick and technically skilled, but with a tendency to put his head down and miss his teammates. For Chelsea, it’s critical that Cole and his help defenders not only stop Robben from scoring one of his patented curlers, but also that they deal with Philip Lahm, who plays behind Robben at right back. He’ll be looking to overlap Robben, which means moving into the wide space left open when the Dutch winger cuts inside, and deliver aerial crosses into the box for Bayern’s tall Center Forward, the by turns deadly and comically inept “Super” Mario Gomez. His height provides a threat that Chelsea simply didn’t have to deal with when they defended resolutely and rode their luck past Barcelona.

If that’s the game’s most critical matchup, its because it has a domino effect. When Lahm goes forward, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba or attacking midfielder Juan Mata, will drift towards the space vacated by the German fullback. If Chelsea can force Bayern into turning the ball over, they can look to break quickly into that area. This is where the suspension of Bayern’s best defensive midfielder, Luis Gustavo, becomes critical. Bayern will be forced to play Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, both of whom are good players but just aren’t as good at winning the ball back or protecting their central defenders as Gustavo. That means Mata might find it easier to link up with Drogba, forcing Bayern’s defensive line to shift from (their) left to right. This opens up space for Chelsea’s third attacking player, Salomon Kalou, to burst down the Bayern left, into that newly created space, and find a route to goal.

Other than that, it will likely be Drogba creating on his own for Chelsea. Which could well be enough. He’s tremendously strong, good at winning free kicks and controlling the ball, and he’s got a great record of scoring in cup finals.

Great plan, right? The problem is they’ve got to rely on heroics from Petr Cech and smart play from David Luiz, who’s been shaky at times this season. And even so, they’ll still be riding their luck. Remember: Lionel Messi hit the post and missed a penalty against Chelsea in the Semifinal. And even then it still took Drogba KOing Gerard Pique and the speed of Ramires to reduce the Barca d to shambles. Ramires is a potentially fatal loss for Chelsea. Kalou is a good player, but he’s not as good at the jail-break counterattack as the Brazilian.

The best hope for a neutral, in fact, might be for Bayern to score early. This could force Chelsea out of their shell and make them attack Bayern’s weaknesses—their lack of a holding midfielder and their somewhat shaky CBS (one of whom is also, wait for it, suspended)—directly. Chelsea lack width, but they’ve got players who can pass the ball, and even a few creative options in Florent Malouda, Daniel Sturridge, and the resurgent Fernando Torres, who could potentially stretch the game. If Bayern can force Chelsea to abandon conservative tactics early enough, then we could get a wide open game with plenty of chances at both ends. Bayern are slightly better set up for that kind of play, but Chelsea have more out and out goal scorers on their squad.

So that’s it. My prediction? Bayern 3-1 Chelsea. MOTM? Phillip Lahm.

EPL Title Decider.

A thrilling end to the (Barclay’s) English Premier League season as Manchester City won the league for the first time since 1968 in dramatic, oil-fueled fashion.

It was a watershed day for US based footie fans as the competition between ESPN and the Murdoch empire meant that 7 different matches were telecast simultaneously in the US—something which would have been truly unthinkable a decade ago.

City’s victory was reminiscent of the Boston Red Sox improbable comeback against the New York Yankees in 2004. Needing only to beat the league’s worst road team in their own stadium to secure the championship, the notorious chokers seemed to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and handed yet another title to their bitter crosstown rivals, Manchester United, when 10-man, relegation threatened Queens Park Rangers took a 2-1 lead in the 66th minute. With Manchester United winning 1-0 at Sunderland, City needed two goals to win the title.

The match had everything. City’s talismanic midfielder Yaya Toure went down with an injury in the first half. Defender Joleon Lescott had an anxiety-induced meltdown sending QPR’s Djibril Cisse through to make it 1-1 just after half-time. Then, QPR and former Man City midfielder Joey Barton lost his mind after a run in with Carlos Tevez. Barton retaliated with an elbow, saw the inevitable red card, and then kicked Kun Aguero for good measure on his way out the door. Classy. His twitter antics in the wake of the match are typically demented.

Still, City were paralyzed with fear and unable to get through the QPR defense, which were packed tightly inside their own penalty area. With Lescott still reeling, the London club managed to break out and make it 2-1 on jailbreak counter-attack.

The scenes inside the Etihad stadium at that point where staggering. Fans were openly weeping, jumping up and down in frustration, and throwing their scarves to the ground. For 25 minutes, City seemed destined to bow down to their own choking DNA, while traveling United fans gleefully celebrated in Sunderland.

Then, in the 90th minute, Edin Dzjeko headed in a corner. As news trickled through to the QPR bench that Bolton had drawn, which left them safely out of the relegation zone no matter the result, their resistance melted. In the 4th minute of Barton-induced stoppage time, Aguero played a tight one two with Mario Balotelli, resisted both a diving challenge from QPR fullback Taiwo and the temptation to dive for a penalty, and won the title at the near post. In Sunderland, United and Sir Alex Ferguson were, temporarily at least, knocked off their fucking perch.

It’s truly a game-changing victory for Manchester City, who have long been the poor relation to their more successful city rivals. The win changes everything between the two sets of fans, and throws down a gauntlet to United to improve their squad. Will the Glazers step up?

That means money. City won the title thanks to a massive cash infusion from their Abu Dhabi based owners.  It says everything about the contradictory nature of modern sports that a game so thrilling and a result so meaningful to a local community was coordinated by interests that are not only unabashedly commercial, but have emerged from a region and context that has little in common with the traditions in which the English game so often wraps itself.

The offseason will again be fascinating to watch. City emerged victorious, but have plenty of question marks. Their victory in the league was narrow, they crashed out of the Champions League, Yaya Toure has made noises about wanting to return to Barcelona, and the antics of Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli have been a season-long headache. Their non-Manchester rivals, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle and Liverpool, are also all faced with major squad decisions. The financial jockeying at the top will be intense. Roberto Mancini has already announced that Man City’s sights are on the Champions League. Can anyone in England stop them, or is it up to the Spanish giants?

At the bottom, it’s a black day for Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves, all of whom will have the cold comfort of parachute payments to offset the dramatic financial loss that relegation entails. Blackburn’s season was particularly traumatic, with fans ending the season in open revolt against the manager and the club’s Indian based ownership. Relegation for these clubs is a huge blow to their local economies.

Saturday May 19th is the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. If Chelsea win, then Tottenham’s flakiness will come back to haunt them, as the Blues (who finished in 6th) will take the 4th Champion’s League spot. That’d be a huge financial and psychological blow for Spurs. If Chelsea lose, however, then they are stuck in the Europa League, and owner Roman Abramovich will likely shake up management yet again. Arsenal did brilliantly to hang on to 3rd, but it’s yet another year without a trophy for Arsene Wenger.

Saturday morning marks another huge game in England—the Championship Playoff in Wembley Stadium. Blackpool play West Ham in a battle between two teams who are both looking to bounce straight back into the Premier League one year after going down. The game means everything to the clubs and their supporters.

I’m going to sign off with the words of Mario Balotelli, spoken in an interview on the pitch immediately after City won: “A lot of people talked bad about me, so now they have to shut up and watch me.”