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Thursday, July 19, 2007


I’m an agnostic – which means I claim no particular knowledge about God – but if there is one theological consideration to which I’m very close to converting, it would be that of the football gods. Why, you ask? Not because they are beneficent, or because they are just – often they are neither. I could believe in the football gods because, man, have they got a wicked sense of humor. Consider these snippets:

  • Two years ago, when he was first bought by Liverpool, Djibril Cisse’s tibia exploded in a collision with Blackburn defender Lucas Neil. The break was so severe that the doctors who initially reviewed his x-rays were forced to inform him that they were considering amputation. 6 months after this sickening injury he returned to score a crucial penalty in the shoot-out vs. AC Milan in the European Cup Final. A year later, playing in an ill-advised friendly for the Les Bleus against China, he shattered his other leg and missed the World Cup. Wicked.
  • Two years ago, Carlito Tevez was playing for Corinthians in Brazil already a distinct persona non grata as a $20 million Argentine playing in Brazil - he did his reputation no favors by showing up at a press conference after losing a critical Paulista derby against Palmeiras, in a Manchester United jersey. His explanation, “My sponsor is Nike, they give me shirts to wear and this is one of them.” He was promptly fined a week’s wages. A friend of mine mentioned that perhaps it was a signal to Manchester United that he wanted to talk, and I was so dismayed at the idea that I dismissed him as a Neanderthal in cleats, incapable of such a subtlety and that the risk reward was far too heavily tipped towards risk (given the fines and disenchantment of the Corinthians supporters). 2 years later, he’s signing for Manchester United. Wicked.
  • Fabio Capello was brought to Real Madrid to rescue a dishearteningly under-achieving collection of prima donas from another year of futility, with the club suffering from its worst barren spell in years (no trophies in 3 seasons) while their more humble rivals in claret and blue seemed to be gathering them in buckets. So Don Fabio comes in and completely changes the way they play – no more trying to force the same set of galacticos into ever-more futile combinations and getting the same crap results. They were so bad on the field, and so bad to watch that it almost became a reason to tune in by itself. Beckham was relegated to the practice squad for announcing his departure to MLS, and Ronaldo was sent to Milan - not that Milan, the other Milan - to the dismay of legions of his fans. However, by the end of the season Becks was in the form of his life, Capello's mid-season Argentine buys were playing their socks off, and Robinho was making people forget the gap toothed assassin like so much of yesterday’s news…oh and by the way, they won the league. So how did they reward their Don – by sacking him for playing unattractive football. Wicked.
  • Gerrard Houllier spent 7 years at Liverpool FC playing second fiddle to Man U and Arsenal – so they sacked him after finishing 4th in his last year in the league and a whopping 30 points behind the record breaking Arsenal. Liverpool brought in Rafael Benitez who figured out a way to pip Barcelona and Real to La Liga twice in three years, to see if he could bring that kind of handicapped success back to Merseyside. A year later, Houllier is at Olympique Lyon, not to win the league (which they had already done 4 years in a row before him) but to win the European Cup (which no French team other than Olympic Marseille have ever done). So what happened? Liverpool finished 5th the next year AND won the European Cup and reached a final 2 years later, while Olympic Lyon won the league two more times but got dumped out of the only competition they truly cared about out in the first round of the knockout stages 2 years running. Wicked.
  • Chelski were thought to be such an immoveable object in the EPL, they chose to completely upset the balance of the team by buying a $30 million Ukranian striker named Shevchenko (though they had just paid $30 million for Drogba the year before who after 15 goals his first season, cost them about $2 million per goal) and a big German named Ballack who just oozed style and skill. So what happened – Shevchenko's 4 goals cost them about $8M each, while Drogba doubled his goal tally from the previous season and won the golden boot, and Ballack was injured so often that he couldn't play in the semi-final against Liverpool who beat them (AGAIN) in the very European Cup they sought to win by buying him - although it's questionable whether or not at this point Ballack would have been much help. Oh, and they lost the EPL title to Man U. Wicked.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo made himself a pariah by becoming the victim of an ill-advised act of aggression from his hot-headed common street rogue of a teammate ('es fat, 'es scouse, 'es come to rob yer 'ouse) Wayne Roo-ney in the World Cup against England, and he had his ticket booked for Madrid this summer to escape the derision. This is the same Real Madrid who was in the process of abandoning its galacticos era of “Zidanes and Pavons”. Man U made it clear to anyone who would listen that he wasn’t going anywhere – ever. So what did he do – he scored 16 goals (led his team) and won the Players’ and Football Writer’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards ALL IN THE SAME YEAR – 2007. Oh, and by the way, Man U won the EPL. Wicked.
  • Dunga is beleaguered by the Brazilian press for almost everything he does – even his choice of touchline attire. Brazilian coaches who wear suits are considered to be out of touch and arrogant (essentially a sell-out), so this poor guy decides to do his daughter a favor and wears one of her designed shirts at a friendly against England – he’s brutalized for it on both sides of the Atlantic for being to "flash". Then they complain about results, selection and style, and how he could allow Ronaldinho and Kaka to skip the Copa America. So what does he does he do? He plays a team full of players you’ve never heard of, tells his stars to go jump in a lake, and beats the vaunted and hated rivals, Argentina, in a final that wasn’t close from the start. And as he ran onto the pitch to share in the victory with his teammates, one photographer made the mistake of getting in his way - and Dunga promptly shoved him out of the way with more than a little glee...metaphorically I might add.

Yeah, the football gods have a wicked sense of humor.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


The last time Liverpool had 2 good strikers that consistently scored, they won the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. Robbie Folwer and Michael Owen in their respective careers with the club combined for over 300 goals between them (not necessarily playing together), but Owen's intense dislike for anyone challenging his supremacy as the club's top scorer initiated a period of reliance on single source goal scoring that has cost the club the chance to win the EPL ever since.

That Fernando Torres is quality is not in doubt – by himself (i.e. with no quality forwards surrounding him) he has been the leading scorer for Athletic Madrid for 5 years, including two 20+ goal seasons in 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. A player with good balance, pace and strength, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll have difficulty scoring in the EPL, where all three are critical to success. Where Morientes failed on Merseyside, Torres may flourish, and give the Reds the much needed attacking boost they’ve sorely lacked in their three EPL campaigns under Rafael Benitez.

But the question remains unanswered – is Torres the answer for Liverpool? Is this all they need to break the barrier that has kept them from matching the bona fine top quality levels of Arsenal, Chelski and hated rivals Manchester U(seless)? Defensively Liverpool have always been strong. Not prone to making adventurous mistakes, and with young defenders of a high quality in abundance, it doesn’t seem that they’ll give up more goals than they score any time soon – but the sum total of goals is less significant than their timeliness, and a review of some rather atrocious attacking displays against run of the mill opponents last year, more than accounts for the gulf in EPL results between them and the other big four of English football.

On the first day of the season, a disgraceful display saw them drop two points against a team, in Sheffield United, that had no business in the top flight of English football. Steven Gerrard, just coming off one of the greatest match winning performances in the club’s history, scoring 2 belters in dying moments of their FA Cup final against West Ham in May of 2006, failed on several occasions to apply the winning touch, and as all teams with great players, Liverpool’s weakness of depending too much on individual performances was laid to bare for all to see. In the past it had been the heroics of Robbie Fowler (who ironically scored the penalty that salvaged a point on the day), before the torch was passed (begrudgingly) to Michael Owen.

But the lure of the galacticos was too great for a player never short on self-belief, and the responsibility then fell on their inspirational captain Gerrard. Unlike Chelski, however, Liverpool are not built for consistent goal-scoring form their midfielder, and the arrival of Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt was thought to be the tonic needed to boost the timely but sparing contributions of Luis Garcia and Tim Crouch in attack. Unfortunately for Reds supporters Crouch and Bellamy were unbearably lazy and unproductive for long stretches this year, and while Crouch is impressive in spurts, you just don’t get the feeling that he’s a player that can carry the goal-scoring load on his spindly shoulders. Bellamy, for his part, never appeared to care too much. An incessant moaner, his productivity was directly proportional to the faith the manager showed in him, neither of which was very much, and both of which diminished progressively as the season came to a conclusion. For all his talk of being a lifelong supporter of Liverpool, he certainly didn't look like it. While his more industrious Dutch partner Kuyt, who although not prolific in scoring, but prolific in working, made it impossible to ignore Bellamy’s lack of both.

There are few midfields that can boast the current quality Liverpool enjoy – Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard have an embarrassment of riches in technical ability, both with and without the ball. They're all astute tacklers, and what Mascherano lacks relative to Gerrard and and Alsonso in technique, he more than makes up for in pure determination and discipline. You’ll rarely find a midfielder that doesn’t have two clubbed feet, more willing to do the running than Mascherano. Interestingly left in the lurch in this regard is Momo Sissoko – while no one can doubt his effort, his lacking technical ability, and clumsly challenges became an increasing liability and was duly sent to the substitute’s bench for most of the second half of the season. His paltry claims for first team football are laughable for the man some (prematurely) compared to Patrick Vieira. Vieira may be tall, black and aggressive, but to compare him to Sissoko is like comparing a Ferrari to a Mustang by saying they’re both fast. Arsenal know better than anyone that you build championships off of Vieira's arsenal of skills as they, Juventus and Inter have all experienced – you could build a house with the bricks this man Sissoko regularly lays with his feet.

The only other glaring weakness of Liverpool is on the wing – a half fit Harry Kewell good for 2-3 season ending injuries per season is the only one with the technical ability to really put fear in his opponents, although he has rarely done so in his 4 years with the club. As for Mark Gonzales, he’s on his way to Betis, since they were not relegated, and ruthless Rafa probably couldn’t wait to see him go. The staff spent 2 years tracking this kid before he came to Liverpool, and he turned out to be one of the worst purchases of Benitez tenure, second only to Mauricio Pellegrino. It’s hard not to like Fabio Aurelio for all his qualities, but even harder to see him being the answer they’re looking for in terms of consistent and quality wing play. But the biggest problem on the wings for Liverpool is on the right – other than Jermaine Pennant, Liverpool are desperately lacking in this department, which answer the question of why Gerrard is always stuck playing out there. Clearly, they quality of the wing play has affected the quality of the goal-scoring, and as such, even Fernando Torres will have problems making something out of nothing if they don’t address that problem promptly.

Most strikers are only as good as the quality of their service, and there are few exceptions in the history of football, let alone in the modern game. For Torres’ move to Liverpool to be a success, he’ll need to develop more than just his own strong aerial game, his shooting, his pace and his hunger – he’ll need to develop a relationship with Liverpool’s current crop of wingers, and on the face of it, or at least until more action is taken on the transfer market, he could be in development for a long, long time.