…Leo Messi demanded to be sold from Barcelona. What if he went to a club in a different country that was barely fighting off relegation… in a league already dominated by the status quo? Say Messi transfers to Wigan Athletic. Then goes on to win the Premiership twice, the Europa League, and the FA Cup… with Wigan! Oh, and Messi also does for cocaine what Lance Armstrong did for PEDs, fraternizes with the mob, and makes boldly divisive statements regarding English regionalism. (Basically, he becomes the anti-Messi off the pitch). Would you think more or less of Messi than if he stayed at Barca slaughtering teams? Would you not be entertained?
Numbers are numbers, but legends are legendary. And while the record breaker continues to make history, I just wanted to give you a friendly reminder that there is still another. Thoughts?
Of course, you also have to give props to John Terry for making a similar effort at WC 2010. And by similar I mean far less effective but far more salmon-like.
But if we’re on the subject of an entree denying a goal, look no further for the number one spot. I cannot confirm that Blackburn and its sponsors had anything to do with the production of afore-linked video. (Anfield Cat, you’re off the hook for today).
Who knows if was PR stunt, but add it to Balotelli’s list of good deeds, right next to handing hundreds of pounds to a homeless man one night. If you’re keeping score, St. Peter, he’s still trailing about 50-2. Then there was this:
I know, I know, it’s so tough to schedule your weekend activities. These days the weekends creep up on you like ninja warriors. What once was T.G.I.F. should probably read more like O.M.G.I.F. You finish up work/school/whatever Friday afternoon then you immediately have to flex your social muscles/unwind/support your kids’ fledgling social biceps. By the time you wake up Saturday morn, you could already have missed it.
I’m talking about you, Mr. Everton 3-3 Man United at 7:45 AM ET aka at the buttcrack of dawn in Sanchez timezone. A contender for Thriller of the Season and you (like this idiot) missed it. And for no good reason, except for that fact that you’re too busy taking the family or your roommate Ravi out for Indian food to prepare for that sort of double-espresso morning clash.
I mean, the warning signs were all there. Wayne Rooney fresh in the headlines for alleged infidelity (I’m not even going there, nice try) and he has to return to Goodison to face his old colors. (There’s a great “once a blue, always a blue” joke somewhere in there but I’m too impatient to let it mature)… Rumors of a “No Woman, No Kai” song spreading like Yo Mama jokes in 1994… Alex Ferguson preparing to do the unthinkable and drop an undroppable player because of gossip/fan abuse…
So, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see read about a 3-3 injury time comeback stunner, right? And yet, missing a game like that still stung like a Saguaro jockstrap. But cacti undergarments for you no more! I’m making use of my Friday squeaky bum time to give you the lowdown on what you need to be watching this weekend. If you really want to tailor your sports viewing schedule to fit mine, you could throw in 3 NFL games and “the golf” on Sunday, but I wouldn’t wish that kind of obsession on a Chelsea fan. So here’s ye olde soccer:
Wolves at Tottenham 10:00 ET Saturday
-Two of the most interesting teams in England. The promoted side was a favorite pick to be this year’s whipping boys, and they still look at times like they could go down 6 or 7. But they haven’t. An opening day win over Stoke and draws with Everton and Newcastle (as well as a 2-1 defeat at Fulham) show they’re not ready to become pushovers, yet.
-On the other hand, Tottenham seem to make a habit of randomly demolishing teams. That whole “Crouch only scores for England against little teams” argument looks just as true when he’s wearing a Spurs top, but no less helpful to his team (club and country). And yet, there they are, dead even in points with Wolves. Perhaps the Champions League campaign will make them an easier scalp in the Prem.
Catania at AC Milan 14:45 ET Saturday
-Ibra watch continues. Shoot, even he‘s watching himself. Check this quote. “I’d like to think I’m a spectacular player, a guy who can do extraordinary things and I’m at the perfect club with this mentality. With brilliant attackers and creators like Robinho, Ronaldinho, Pato, Pirlo and Seedorf around me, this is the perfect stage… We are the new dream team.” Well, time to back it up. Last time these two met it was a tasty 2-2 draw at the San Siro; should be a fun one tomorrow. Oh, and Ibra also did this:
Real Madrid at Real Sociedad 16:00 ET Saturday
-Let’s face it, you might as well pencil in every Mourinho-Madrid match in the “must watch” column. The biggest managerial ego in the hottest seat in football– everyone wants to see how the experiment turns out. Throw in the fact that Barcelona have gone from captivating darlings of the game to whiny, poaching elitists and you have a 38-game soap opera in La Liga. Oh yeah, Sociedad will be turning up Saturday as well. They’re actually even with Real too on 4 points, with their win coming at the expense of disappointing Villarreal. So, maybe they’ll make something of this. Either way, just as good.
Liverpool at Manchester United 8:30 ET Sunday
-Come on, dude. Best fixture in the Premiership. Title implications, legacy implications, decades of animosity, and an array of talent. I don’t know what else I can say. This matchup hasn’t seen an uneventful game since 2006. And it won’t tomorrow.
Blackpool at Chelsea 11:00 ET Sunday
-Chelsea are yet to drop a point in the league, and even better, their scorelines are much more attractive than the flat-chested 1-0 results of Mourinho Times (like Medieval Times, but with the Special One). Until they slow down, they deserve to be thoroughly watched (if only for the goal parade). Blackpool, on the other hand, appears to have the brain of big club in a minnow’s body. They don’t park any buses or stack any midfields– they come out to play football. I think this might be the day Chelsea hit double digits…
Barcelona at Atletico Madrid 13:00 ET Sunday
WHERE IS YOUR MEAT DRESS?
-Barca. Once loved, now loathed. Hercules showed them to be mortal and Spain rejoiced. They want your favorite team’s best players, but they aren’t willing to pay megabucks (uh, thanks City?) because they’ll chirp incessantly about how Barca are entitled to said players. Congrats, Barca, you’ve become the Lady Gaga of football: can’t-take-my-eyes-off-you entertaining, but really starting to get annoying with your high-and-mightiness. (How awesome would it make my analogy if Barca signed a player named Alejandro?).
-Atleti. The Legend of Diego Forlan and the Ujfalusi Underdogs. Two wins in two for the ugly Madrid stepsister, and just maybe the slightest bit of hope for an outsider winning La Liga. Don’t say it any louder than a whisper though, it’s still too newborn a challenge. Forlan…
You Might Want To Flip Over For…
-Cologne at Bayern Munich 9:30 ET Saturday for Podolski versus Schweinsteiger and the old team.
-Mainz at Werder Bremen 9:30 ET Saturday to see if perfect Mainz are for real, playing legit competition.
-Arsenal at Sunderland 12:30 ET Saturday just on the off chance Wenger’s boys decide to repeat their midweek theatrics.
-Juventus at Udinese 9:00 ET Sunday because Juve is a “big” team and Udinese is fun to watch despite losing both their first two matches.
-Hamburg at St. Pauli 9:30 ET Sunday as it appears there’s something brewing there, and it ain’t St. Pauli Girl. (Hint: it’s the Iroquois ensemble that is Hamburg).
-Manchester City at Wigan 10:00 ET Sunday for the City show. Period.
By the time you read this there will already be another twist in the story. Another wrinkle in the best laid plans of Rafa Benitez Roy Hodgson. The problem is, we’ll probably never hear about it. Such is the modus operandi when it comes to Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani.
The ghost. The enigma. A walking injury wrapped in doubt or flu or some absurd excuse (SIDEBAR: my favorite was when Benitez said he wouldn’t risk fielding Aquilani because the pitch was bumpy). Aquilani has been in the books on Merseyside for over a year and many Liverpool fans still haven’t gotten a proper introduction. Before that even happens, he could be gone. Shrouded in mystery are the circumstances of the Italian, so much so that all we can do is speculate. So, let’s!
1. Why did Rafa buy him?
He was supposed to be the direct replacement for Xabi Alonso– I think that much is clear. AA was allegedly 1-2 months away from fitness, hence his “bargain” price of £18 million. Once he was ready, he would slot right into the central midfield position (back to the bench, Lucas!) with Mascherano.
Only he wouldn’t. As I argued, he isn’t the same type of midfielder as Alonso. He operates with movement, not positioning; he likes to create from forward, not from the back; his passing game is one of quickness and misdirection, not lengthy precision… The point being, if I can see this then surely Rafa must have as well. Which leads us to question number two:
2. Was Rafa to change the formation to accommodate AA, or vice versa?
Something had to give, right? Given the expensive transfer fee and timetable of Aquilani’s rehabilitation, Rafa could not have bought him merely as backup to Gerrard or Lucas. I just don’t think I could believe that– and you shouldn’t either. AA must have been a major cog in Rafa’s plans at the time of the transfer. But to make him a permanent fixture in the starting lineup would require some shuffling around.
Either Rafa planned on allowing his team to flow freely with the advancing style of Aquilani or he thought he could make AA into an Alonso-type player. (SIDEBAR: Rafa did the same “strapping the harness on a midfielder” trick to make Lucas more defensive right around the time he went from long hair to grandma hair– which also wasn’t the best idea considering how it worked for Shevchencko). It had to be one way or the other.
But something happened.
3. What the hell happened?!
This is the abridged version of what we saw unfold above the surface last season. AA takes much longer than expected to reach fitness. But then he doesn’t play. Either he has some sort of bug, or slight knock, or something like that every weekend. Even when he is “fit” he’s often not risked. Other times there’s simply no explanation for his omission. He finishes the season with 9 Premier League starts, 1 goal, and 6 assists. Pretty respectable stat line for a midfielder (can’t confirm but I believe he had the highest assists-to-starts ratio in the Prem); furthermore, he passed the eye test with flying color(s)– red and more red. So much talent, so much promise.
At this time in the story, Rafa leaves Liverpool. It was maddening to make sense of the AA saga, but most of us were willing to accept at face value that Rafa had thrown in the towel on the season and wanted to make extra certain that Aquilani was fit and ready for this year. There was a lot of hype bandied about the Italian for his first full, healthy season at Liverpool. I bought into it, we all did.
Then something else happened. Enter Roy Hodgson.
4. Why does Roy want to loan him out?
This is a trick question, because it’s really like 50 questions. Let’s go all Paul Pierce on this and take a stab. Here are the theories that I can see.
Roy planned on inserting AA in the starting lineup just off Torres, but jumped at the chance to sign Joe Cole when that fell into his lap. He saw an opportunity and went for it. I don’t blame him for making a gut decision even if I disagree with it. But Joe Cole hasn’t exactly been a paragon of fitness in recent years, so I don’t see how Roy could assume Cole (or Gerrard, for that matter) would be good to go in all 38 Prem matches. I mean, he’s already banned for the next 3, so how could he not slot AA immediately in Cole’s spot? Right now, against City, arg!
AA felt hard done by last season and made up his mind during the summer to get out of Liverpool like a bat out of monkey hell. It’s possible, but unlikely for two reasons. First, the club invested a humongous chunk of resources to nurse him back to health– he doesn’t seem the unreasonable type to not feel indebted to them and repay their faith. Also, the regime change should’ve rejuvenated his aspirations at Liverpool.
Roy screwed up with the Mascherano situation and found himself with too many central midfielders on the wage bill. It looked dead set that the Argentine was on his way out, so much so that Hodgson went out and bought Christian Poulsen as his replacement. (SIDEBAR: World’s Most Expensive Meat Cleaver). But Roy also balked at inferior bids for Mascherano, and now it looks like he’ll stay on with the Reds. Ipso Facto someone has to go. But why Aquilani?
Roy doesn’t rate AA. Maybe he’s atrocious in training while Lucas looks like Zidane. Um, I’m really clutching at straws. It’s a possibility though– just one that presupposes that he’s absolutely horrendous in practice, enough to overwhelm his magnificent displays in actual matches.
Poulsen, the Pass Master
But the thing is, none of these theories really answer the initial question, so I’ll ask once more, with feeling.
5. Why LOAN him out?
Do you see now? The above arguments would hold more water if it was the sale of Aquilani rather than a loan deal. So now we’re getting closer to taking a bite out of the crux burger of the issue.
Roy really wants AA to play for him, but sincerely thinks he needs to play every match this season (guaranteed) to get back to the Liverpool standard. He’s loaning him out to make him a better player for the Reds… Gosh, that would be neat, but highly unlikely. Dude is 26, not 19, and he’s already shown what he can do in Serie A. A loan to West Ham is justifiable, but not one back to his home country. Ask Fergie why he won’t loan Macheda anywhere in Serie A. If AA goes to Italy, he’s probably never coming back…
Roy wants to sell him, so he’s giving Italian clubs a taste of the goods. Juventus is the club getting name-checked, perhaps Roy is guessing the Turin giants are tiring of Diego’s partyboy antics. (SIDEBAR: AA in for Poulsen has got to be the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, right?). But Aquilani is still highly regarded in Italy, so a loan is unnecessary bait. Unless…
6. Is there is an underlying problem with Aquilani?
AA has serious fitness problems. The medical team last year discovered something persistent and it’s in Liverpool’s best interests to cut their losses with the crock. Roy hopes AA keeps it together long enough for Juve to pay up.
AA is psychologically destroyed. Somewhere between the injuries and the move to a foreign country he lost his drive/confidence. Language, food, weather, whatever– it’s not working for him. Maybe he’s scared to take the field for the risk of aggravating his injury problems. There are a number of alterations of the “psychologically hindered” theory, but I believe the English term is what is called a “flop.”
He’s been a truant within the club. Perhaps he has an infectious bad attitude or something else nasty about him we haven’t seen. Maybe he’s had a bust up, a la Riera.
If any of these are even potentially true, then we must revisit last season. There’s another question that’s been bugging me.
7. What caused Rafa to change his mind on AA?
At some point last year Aquilani dropped from Rafa’s starting plans into the cornhole of obscurity. In light of Roy’s recent determination to loan him out, do we really still believe (as I did at the time) that Rafa just wanted to save him for this year? Benitez must’ve known something. Something happened– but what transpired, and when exactly? There’s too much damning circumstantial evidence for me not to presume that Rafa made a calculated decision that AA could no longer be the successor to Alonso. Which leads us into our final question.
8. Why the secrecy around Aquilani?
This is the most frustrating aspect of the story. And I’m afraid it only plays into the “underlying problem” theories. Rafa Benitez may have made a reputation for himself as a bullish “tell-nothinger,” but Roy Hodgson is very much an open book. Yet even Roy is tight-lipped and mysterious about Aquilani’s position. Is there any possible way that both managers playing coy on AA could actually be a good thing? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
I sense something bigger and darker churning the wheels of this ongoing Shakespearean drama. There’s something amiss with Alberto Aquilani– just wish I had the answer to one last question, what is it?
And so it goes with the talented Italian who can’t get a game for Liverpool. Perhaps on Monday, when the loan to Juve is set to be finalized, the turbulence behind the scenes will finally be revealed in full. Maybe the deal will collapse and there’ll be another wrench convoluting the master plan. Most likely, we’ll never truly understand. I know I don’t.
It’s been a long six weeks, but the wait is finally almost over for soccer to begin again – real soccer, not MLS soccer. The red and orange in my blood has begun to boil in anticipation and, more than anything, I can’t wait for the ritual to begin again: Waking up early on Sundays to watch the games, fanatically screaming and shouting in ecstasy and despair, then going to play on my own soccer team before returning to watch an Italian sports show analysis of the day’s games while arguing both with the TV and my family.
If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m a romanista to the core and, despite the skeptics (yeah, I’m talking to you Seve), I optimistically believe that i giallorossi will win the scudetto. I would even go so far as to say that Roma has the team this year to win the Champions League for the first time in their history. Overall, we have a solid squad with Vucinic and Pizarro in top form, and Menez quickly finding his role in this system. The eternal gladiators of De Rossi and Totti will undoubtedly give everything they have. The biggest question mark is Adriano: Can he get back to pre-drug, hookers, and booze form? Above all, the most reassuring news about the team this year is just the confidence that can be heard in interviews. It’s as if they’ve placed expectations on themselves that they have no doubt they can achieve. No longer is Roma a middle of the table squad, but slowly they have pushed themselves into the top table and will become a mainstay in the champions league for a long time to come. Opponents will enter the arena and here the shouts of the ultras:
I’m not going to start my first post with an exhaustive examination of Italy’s poor performance and early exit from the World Cup; instead, I’m moving on (mainly because it’s too depressing and, at times, physically painful) and looking towards the future – the youth.
Being an internationally renowned and prestigious league has its benefits and its pitfalls. Benefits for the clubs and pitfalls for the national teams. Over the past twenty years, the big three leagues (Premier League, Seria A, and La Liga) have seen an influx of players from all over the world which has resulted in the sidelining or exporting of many homegrown players. Foreign and greedy owners have taken over and the goal has become winning championships not by developing players and building a solid team but by buying it. In the end, it’s the kids that suffer. Owners have lost patience with youth programs that don’t produce results or profits quick enough. It’s much easier to just buy the best player in each position and then try and get a coach (aka Mourinho) to teach them to play together.
Five nations represented, none are Italian.
Case and point is the “Italian club” Inter FC. This year they joined the ranks of an elite few after winning the treble and have the opportunity of winning the “sextet”, a feat accomplished by only one other team, Barcelona. But can they really expect Italians to be proud of what they’ve done. THEY HAVE NO ITALIANS ON THE TEAM! That’s not entirely true. There are five – two of whom are goalies that have to hope that Julio Caesar gets seriously injured if they want to stand between the posts (but if that happens Inter will probably just buy another goalie) and three field players whose playing minutes are like Cristiano Ronaldo World Cup goals – few and far between. The tragedy here is that two of those benchwarmers (Santon and Balotelli) are young players that came up through the youth program but have not been able to gain experience. As a result, they are missing out on opportunities to improve and grow as players in the hope of bringing their talent and potential to the international stage.
It’s not just Inter though. The transfer market in Italy is headlined by the possible transfer of foreigners into Italy while more and more potentially (and actually) phenomenal young Italians are fleeing the country in the hopes of garnering more respect, experience, skill, and money. As more capital is spent on these high profile players, spending on the youth programs plummets, leaving these kids to search for a club that’s willing to invest in their future and talent: within the last five years, Lazio lost Frederico Macheda to Manchester United, Parma’s Giuseppe Rossi to Villareal, Roma’s Alberto Aquilani to Liverpool, Juventus is about to lose Sebastian Giovinco, and Inter will probably lose Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon if things don’t change soon. I’m sure there are many more that I’m forgetting right now too.
Paolo Maldini's son Christian (left) and father Cesare (right)
If left to the clubs, nothing will change. Even though all the owners of the major clubs in Italy are still Italian (unlike in England), their greed has placed the club’s success over their own country’s. This is where the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio) needs to step in. Youth promotion starts by regulating the number of foreign players that are allowed to be in the starting eleven as well as on the club’s payroll. This way the clubs are forced to produce homegrown talent that will develop and mature to be stars for not only their club but hopefully also their country like a Maldini, Totti, Nesta, or many others. In 2010, it was the young guns of Germany that carried the team while Spain has to credit the Barcelona youth program for their first World Cup and Euro wins.
In the end, it’s a domino effect. Managerial greed and self-importance leads to buying foreign “stars” (primarily South American) which leads to reducing investment in club youth programs which leads to poor national team performances and finally results in angry and frustrated fans (myself included). Italy’s future on the international stage for both the national team and the domestic clubs depends largely on how well the FIGC can restructure its youth initiatives so that once again a city’s pride can become a national treasure.
Today is the day. Today is the day I finally admit to myself something I’ve been reluctant to accept for the past couple years. It has taken me longer than most to recognize the obvious, but history and childhood memories of my first heroes have clouded my vision. Today though, I sadly announce that Serie A “just isn’t what it used to be.”
Long have I defended the Italian league, the styles of play and chessboard matches, the ridiculous and the Totti, but I’m afraid I can’t do it anymore. The truth is, I don’t even really enjoy watching Italian games nowadays. The Premiership and La Liga, it seems, have taken priority for viewing as well as individual football stardom. The only teams worth watching are your Romas and Napolis, which actually comes as a backhanded compliment to the challengers.
I wish I could write about the improvements and rising superiority of the two teams, but that would be continued living of a different sort of lie. Their squads are filled with some good players, their managers are capable, but they’re really no better than the comparable squads of a few years ago (read: Roma, Fiorentina, Lazio, Udinese). Talent-wise, they are almost perpetually outclassed (with 2001 being the notable exception) by the Big Three Northerners. Yet they are this season entrenched in third and fourth place, still with hope of overhauling leaders Inter.
The explanation is a matter of potential and execution. Here, I’m more than happy to give Roma and Napoli the praise they deserve. Given their resources, they’re maximizing their results with effort and passion. They’re grinding out results against teams all over the league table, sometimes even with a little extra style.
But competing for the Scudetto? Not in my title race, not around my kids. Look, you know a Jose Mourinho Inter are good for a solid 80 points every year, but they’re hardly juggernauts -proven every season when they unceremoniously exit the Champions League at the hands of a real football juggernaut. I’d expect Inter to have an 8 or 11 point lead over Roma and Napoli, but where are Milan and Juventus?
Age, scandal, poor management, take you pick of the musing offered by Serie A apologists. Wait, they say, didn’t Milan win the CL only three years ago? If you can inform me where every one of the players of that side currently reside, I’ll have your answer ready for you. (And Juve’s “title winning” sides of 2005 and 2006 – well too many of them still feature, that’s their problem)! Today’s Milan and Juve are embarrassments to their great histories (trust me, I thoroughly comprehend the feeling). I don’t care where you stand, can you honestly tell me that Beckham or Camoranesi could start on the wing for Barcelona? Feel free to peruse their rosters and play the “who would you rather have” game against Barca, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and others. While their squads are more talented than those of Roma and Napoli, you wouldn’t exactly be thrilled at the chance to sign the Serie A players over the stars in England and Spain.
Meanwhile, look at where the hallmarks from Serie A in the last few years are now. Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the most exciting players in Italy since last World Cup, now go toe to toe for the two Spanish supermegagiants. Fabio Capello has completely changed the mentality of the English National Team, introducing positivity and professional enthusiasm into the squad. Oh, he also won La Liga immediately after leaving Italy. For the second time in his career. Need I go on?
I’m not endorsing any of the BS that players in England (JT) or Spain (CR) pull on a regular or irregular basis, as some footballer in either league will do something insanely dumb as sure as the sun rises tomorrow. There are idiots in every country. But only a quick glance at some games is needed to show you the idiots in Italy are ruining its football faster than the idiots in England and Spain. But don’t ask me, I can’t bear to watch.
Excuse me for not jumping to ‘Santo Cannavaro’s’ defense, but it’s not the first time he’s been on the receiving end of some questionable injections. The eve of the 1999 UEFA Cup Final produced video of him receiving a performance enhancer that was not banned at the time. And Juventus isn’t exactly the club with the cleanest reputation after the 2006 Calciopoli scandal. And well, the cortisone story? Dodgy. Might be the sort of far-fetched excuse the FIGC would promote to protect their golden boy. But a bee sting? I just don’t think you can make that up, or can you assume Cannavaro guilty until the investigation is complete.
**Here is the 1999 video of Cannavaro and the fabulous Parma medical staff**