Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dio: Who cares about Zlatan & Ronaldo?

All the talk ahead of the huge match today is of Zlatan and Ronaldo and reuniting the two Nike sponsors, this time in anger.

But--anyone who's been watching the two teams would likely realize that neither player is on form at the moment. Zlatan has been average since December and Ronaldo has been average all season.

Ronaldo isn't even the best winger in Manchester, so forget about worrying whether he's better than Zlatan or not, especially since Zlatan isn't even the best player on Inter.

Javier Zanetti, as ever--AS EVER--doesn't get the headlines, just like a Vidic for United, despite domineering and rampaging around the pitch consistently each weekend. How can a guy be so good for so long and get so little love? I know the debonair Argentine has a cult following but he's simply one of the top 10 classiest players in the world and never gets the acknowledgment.

I could care less about Zlatan really, but our culture is fascinated with tricks and flare. That' why you see players coming up capable to chop balls left and right and juggle bubble gum but they can't turn while shielding the ball and shifting their balance. Zanetti is a master of the fundamentals. I'll be you he can do all the tricks Zlatan can but just merely has the sense not to. A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordian but doesn't!

Zlatan might be capable of a wicked shot here and there, as is Ronaldo, but the Swede is dogged by inconsistency throughout his career. A player's ceiling doesn't matter if he only hits it once every three months for two weeks duration. Ronaldo, on the other hand, is consistently poor this season, likely due to the pressures he needlessly applies to himself, but last year he was consistently unconscious and enjoyed probably the best single season for any attacker since maybe his namesake at Barcelona 11 or 12 years back, if not longer.

Then again, even the most specious, banal articles containing the keyword "Ronaldo" get millions of hits. So I shouldn't really wonder at the fascination since it's--as ever--money driven. But, as all eyes are trained on the two fashionable Nike stars, it's players like Zanetti and Scholes who I'll be following, and rightly so because they'll be the ones making more of an impact while Zlatan and Ronaldo likely under-perform, as is their tendency in big matches, and consistent with their current form.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dio: Ronaldo, United state of events after Blackburn and before Inter

As always although I am not really inclined I'll offer the reality behind a few Man United story-arcs during and after beating Blackburn 2-1.

Nani was so very poor. However, his best pass all game--the only decent one--the only one that wasn't shit--put in Rooney who did fine to slot it past Paul Robinson who was very passive and did nothing to contend the shot at point-blank range.

Ronaldo scored a belter of a free-kick from an angle--which I think is his first this season direct, when he had so many last year--and again, I will say, keeper Robinson was behind his wall and didn't have his hands up and well, top-flight players shouldn't be able to score generally without putting the ball very close to any corner of the net without it reflecting a little dubiously on the goalie.

Robinson should have done better on both goals. Brad Friedel would have at least gotten a point from this game! I'm a United fan but I know it's true. Do you?

Big Sam thought Rafa fouled Pederson for a penalty, as Rafa jumped in and got beat and then used his arms to pull himself around and back up to Pederson, who went down very agreeably when he could have scored with any concentration or confidence. Rafa knew where the ref was behind him so he got a bit cheeky, but he got away with it through his own guile, not Howard Webb's bias.

Many people say Webb is England's best referee but that is actually based on knowledge and experience from last campaign because Webb has grown pedantic this season, over-elaborating and remonstrating, sort of like a younger, camp Patrick Stewart doing theatre.

Rob Halsey is the country's best referee mainly because he plays down incidents, generally--generally--not beng overly persnickety about fouls, usually letting players get on with it and he doesn't like taking out his cards. Carding players is a weakness for Webb and many others used as compensation for being unable to inadequately control the players with their personalities.

A good ref will only talk to the captains--besides general banter, of course--and card players for dissent only after clearly warning them they better STFU with whining "fack off" nonsense. A good ref will not call anything he didn't see completely, and will only disrupt the game if he's certain of a transgression. Then, he'll tell his line judges not to call offsides if part of the player is onside because the advantage goes to the attacker per UEFA rules designed to make football more flowing. Anyways none of them do this regularly and I think the reason is the pressure created by the atmostphere, but Halsey does better than any others in England this year.

Ronaldo was carded for a clear dive. I think that's the first time Ronaldo was carded for diving this season--he has tried to clean that up. But, when he gets in these immature moods, crying and whining all the time--you could see his gushing relief when he scored--he does a real disservice to himself and most United fans would tell you they wouldn't mind him leaving to Madrid next season as long as we buy someone like Ashley Young or Karim Benzema with the money and get long-term Paul Scholes replacement Wesley Schneijder as part of the trade. Maybe it's just me, actually! The thing I hate most about Ronaldo is he's so insecure about how good he is. Last year he knew how good he was. This year he has no confidence and he expresses it by whinging, kicking-out, blaming teammates, mocking crowds, diving. Furthermore, he isn't playing nearly as well because he doesn't have the confidence to take guys on like he did when he was 19, 20, 21, or 22. He's gotta run at players, get to the byline, do some chop moves, change directions, foot on ball, change of speed, driving at 'em.

He appeases himself too much with the more pusillanimous option when matches are so often crying out for him to change them. Just comes down to confidence and pressure and he was none of one because he's got too much of the other, really ever since missing his penalty against Chelsea in Moscow.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Scholes justifies my existence

"His passes stretched forever."

To cite any other player being more dominant and expressive in a match this season than Paul Scholes was against Fulham is nigh impossible.

The ginger prince shies from cameras and adulation, but on the field he feels, more profoundly than any fortunate observer, the artistry and sheer magnificence he manifested Tuesday like no other; and he knows it gutturally.

But he won't talk about it. Scholes was one of the first players to leave the field after his side clinically dismantled Fulham 3-0, shifting quickly off his stage as teammates and opponents alike hustled to shake his hand and look into his eyes for any sign of higher being.

This left a slightly more willing, though equally uncomfortable Wayne Rooney to attend to interviewing obligations with BBC.

Rooney stammered, bumbled, and twitched, as well as employing many other impression management mannerisms, to generally evade his way through the queries with perfunctory, scattered answers. But, as the topic turned to Scholes, his eyes squinted in awe and understanding:

"Some of his football tonight, I don't think there's any other player in the world who could produce that," Rooney said, taken aback. "In my eyes...," he continued, shaking his head, "He's one of the best ever," now looking quite certain.

Other players and legends (and writers) have been similarly lovestruck by the intelligent, modest, gentlemanly style Scholesy boy alone exudes.

Edgar Davids: "I'm not the best, Paul Scholes is."

Thierry Henry: "He has indestructible mental strength and he is a genuine competitor."

Zinedine Zidane: "Scholes is undoubtedly the best midfielder of his generation."

Bobby Charlton: "I have no hesitation in putting a name to the embodiment of all that I think is best about football. It's Paul Scholes."

And, in recent weeks, when asked what the most amazing thing he's seen in practice was, manager Sir Alex Ferguson revealed Scholes is quite cheeky too.

"The most amazing thing is Paul Scholes, in the morning, when a player goes to have a pee at the side of the training pitch and he fires balls from 40 yards right on top of their head!"

"He got Gary Neville right in the head and Neville chased him across the pitch!"

Scholesy might have had even more fun Tuesday at the Theatre of Dreams.

His passes stretched forever, close and far, far away with unerring accuracy—usually bulls-eying the preferred foot of the recipient, to be fair.

Scholes was the conduit; he was the courier. He signed, sealed, and delivered five or six balls, pin to point, from the center of the pitch far out onto the wing in the first ten minutes, as throughout, just stretching his legs; warming up.

Ten days rested, he then flipped, dinked, tapped, and sprayed, weaving intricacies around enamored, sad Fulham players of which they never contemplated and would never comprehend. He was entranced on the field like a crocodile giving birth along the Nile swamps.

Scholes even had some of the best tackles of the match, getting right up into the Fulham midfield and simply robbing his ball from enfeebled bystanders on occasions.

To be fair, against a beaten and downtrodden team from London, most United players were in control, with Ronaldo being a conspicuous exception. He could do no more than whine and misfire while Carrick and Tevez were also limited.

No one could, or would, compare that night with the inimitable Scholes though.

His lashing goal was a vintage strike on the volley direct from a corner, a routine often attempted over the years of his career with now at least two permanent connections and tallies etched in history. It squeaked under goalkeeper Schwarzer, and Paul Scholes' grin was ear-to-ear, arms raised in glee.

United went away 3-0 to the good with a classy Berbatov and poaching Rooney also making the score-sheet and match reports.

However, this one is mostly about Paul Scholes. The romantic display by the diminutive Salford man, as he twinkles into memory during the last of his career, might just be the best 90 minutes of it.

And for any fan claiming to appreciate football beyond the goals and awards; who doesn't look at, but into, the minutia of play, must take the time to download, or otherwise manufacture, a replay of this match, if not for their own personal growth!

For today, the aging paragon modestly exhibited natural football in a simple state, without frills or pretext, as ever, just precision and execution resultant from hours, days, and years of honest application.

And that is the beauty of Scholes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dio: Biorhythms, overconfidence, etc

It seems everyone is jocking United and Vidic at the moment. The praise is long overdue, really, for the defender who has been fully dominant over the past two years. And now, after 13 consecutive clean sheets, eight games unbeaten, and some astronomical sum of minutes without conceding, as the wheels on the bandwagon, overburdened, start to show signs of strain, I think it's time for the streak to end.

It's a strange phenomenon, in life and football, when confidence becomes expectation. I fall victim to it every time I put in a good outing, with thoughts and fixed fantasies about how awesome of a player I am, only to dip into a week or two of opposite form. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "[I am] happy at not being over happy", "Of fortune's cap, you are not the very button?", "Aye, nor the soles of her shoes!".

Maintaining such a balanced perspective, unbloated by (self-)adulation and media attention, is the key to being consistent. United and Vidic have done their bit over the last two months, but as the slow-learners finally jump on board, applying more pressure and expectation, I expect a goal will trickle in the wrong end this week.

It'll probably be a bit fluky. Vidic hasn't been at his best the last few games, where he was utterly and completely dominant throughout the prior three-four months, even when United were conceding. Van der Sar is up against his old club in Fulham, so I think they might be able to nick one, probably Johnson outmaneuvering Ferdinand, or something from a set-piece. Maybe it'll be the weekend match against Blackburn, but I think finally letting one through will be a weight relieved for the Red Devils prior to their landmark encounter against Mourinho's Inter in Milan.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beckham's last romantic move to end his career proper

David Beckham wants to leave the Los Angeles Galaxy and stay in Italy, and so does the MLS—but they won't admit it.

The current transfer saga itself, as AC Milan negotiate making Beckham's loan move permanent, is the type of high-profile exposure the American league pines for.

While garnering both attention and capital—concepts agreeable to American sport and business—over Beckham's tenure, the Galaxy never competed on the field with the English soccer magnate at the club.

And now both Beckham and Milan have made their desires unequivocal.

The MLS enjoys, if not uncomfortably, the leverage they currently wield at the bargaining table and a deal benefiting all parties involved looks quite certain, but not imminent, as the Galaxy extract what remains of their share in the Beckham stakes.

It's Over in America

Though Beckham appeared in his element, perhaps, in Hollywood, on pitches across America he was certainly out of it. The Galaxy simply needed him to do too much there.

Without dribblers and tidy passers around him, Beckham looked ordinary. He is a player who thrives in association with his more skillful teammates, and his quality is only manifested when there is quality around to support it.

He won't run past players and he has never taken over games. His influence is in the final supply of a flowing side, adding a wide element to provide for clinical, penalty-box strikers, punctuated by occasional dead-ball breakthroughs.

But, he leads more by stature and reputation than actual presence. He was never going to inspire the Galaxy or their fans, lifting them upon his shoulders during a romantic championship run. Certainly not with a below-average MLS side.

Off the field, in Los Angeles, the jerseys were sold. The casual fans allegedly watched and listened, and the American game grew necessarily, financially and respectably.

Definitely, the soccer structures in Los Angeles and in the MLS felt the boom. How long the effect resonates, and whether they might outlast it through a strife economy—so often the scourge of American leagues past—is yet to unfold.

As now the pop in popular culture Beckham brought stateside, like novelty itself, fades. The hot air keeping the Beckham brand aflight gasses and dissipates, and each year is exponentially less profitable, less exploitable.

Money makes the gears turn slowly

So why don't the MLS and the Galaxy sell short on Beckham, their powerful commodity? They most certainly will.

All three are frothing to make the deal permanent, each hopeful to avoid a repeat role in the hackneyed tale of European stars coming to an ultimately defunct American league to wind down their careers in one last marketing bravado.

But, the Americans, as ever, are trying to get top dollar.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber oddly issued a deadline last week for any changes in the current loan deal with Milan in March. Perhaps he was impersonating Gareth Keenan, but no one really listened as the deadline passed, and the commissioner blinked and walked silently backwards away.

The ostentatious posturing showed the gulf in class between the two organizations. AC Milan, the historic European giant, and the MLS, overplaying a big hand with a bad poker face.

Bruce Arena admitted Monday during a press conference: ""Legally or technically, I think March 8 would be the final date of altering the loan agreement. The deadline imposed by Commissioner Garber, you would have to speak to [him] about that."

The Galaxy, who announced last year already recouping and profiting from their Beckham investment, have the new stadium, increased revenues, and season ticket sales.

And with a transfer sum probably around $20 million—market value for an average top-level player slash media icon and world superstar—they'll have the money to both line their pockets and finally build a squad with substance.

Star dims in Europe and bursts in South Africa

As for Milan, they wouldn't have expected their initial $12 million offer to be accepted. Of course the first offer in any deal between major clubs is to be rejected, and later countered with a price tag in the media, to which another offer would likely be rejected, until the deadline—with Kaka's exceptional saga being an outlier.

The Rossoneri will be a better—and even more popular—team with Beckham. He's already played better in a month at the San Siro than he did during any month at the Home Depot Center.

He offers a different option than another veteran, Gennaro Gattuso; they might split time. The competition is good for all, and at 32, Beckham would be suited to be rested occasionally or come off the bench.

Milan is a welcoming home for storied players, of whom they boast quite a collection: Maldini, Seedorf, Ronaldinho, Zambrotta, Kaka, and now Beckham. Berlusconi certainly knows how to market their assets.

As for the Englishman, his motivations have always been clear. Like his continued love for Manchester United, shy Beckham has never been reticent about his burning need to play for England.

He was put to the brink by his former national coach after the 2006 World Cup, but Fabio Capello likes seeing Becks punting in crosses at the club the Italian coach won five Scudetti with.

If the most-capped Englishman stays healthy and plays often and well enough, he seems odds-on to get a final chance at glory and make the squad for the 2010 World Cup.

There lies the final possible catalyst in what has always been his personal crusade to fully and finally restore his pride after his personal hell in the 1998 World Cup.

The simple man who, so unwittingly, shouldered the game across continents, is at least deserving of the chance to extinguish his career in a last, personal blaze of glory and redemption.

You might even say the fans of the game deserve it too: witnessing the midfielder, commodity, and tentative icon returned to his element on pitches across Europe and South Africa as the blinding spotlight on his career finally and mercifully dims and extinguishes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Derby dismissed; greater ties await

United eased through Derby County today in the FA Cup with a second-string side, led by performances from reborn old man Ryan Giggs, with confident displays from Gibson, Nani, and Evra as he returned from injury lay-off.

Sir Alex Ferguson's eye for future EPL and Champions League fixtures was clear, resting Carrick, Scholes, Berbatov, Tevez, and Vidic. United, though, where quite undaunted and played with the confidence and command their powerful squad profile justifies.

Ferguson's treatment of Scholes is most significant. The ginger-haired midfield architect has been ingratiated slowly back into the squad following a long-term injury layoff. The gaffer clearly has a partnership of Scholes and Carrick in mind as United look to steamroll over competition home and abroad in four competitions, with the Champions League as the top priority.

Anderson's inability to win the favor of his manager this season goes in contrast to the breakout influence the Brazilian enjoyed during the double-winning last season, and opens the curtains for Scholesy to feature again across European nights as he did at the Nou Camp during last season's European Cup semi-final.

Giggs is receiving praise from all corners recently, but Ferguson isn't carried away by the pageantry and realizes, through his selections, that Gigg's worth is multiplied against lesser opposition—his masterful day against Chelsea being a recent exception.

Though Sir Alex suggested Giggs would be deserving of Player of the Year consideration this term, the Welshman's number of appearances—16 overall. compared to Vidic's 34—and in which competitions he makes them—just nine in the EPL—proves his realistic worth, and Fergie's appreciation of it.

Giggs tore Derby apart at times today, but his wisdom is more suited to beguile lesser opposition, meanwhile against tougher sides his lack of speed means he might be lucky to make the starting eleven throughout upcoming landmark matches.

Other positive signs were Johnny Evans returning from his own injury absence to reaffirm himself as firm third option at center back, while Darren Gibson marshaled the midfield at Pride Park with ease as deputy for the rested Michael Carrick.

Patty Evra positively returned and started after only featuring once in January, against Chelsea, on the heels of a three-match suspension, only to become injured in that match, missing another month.

Rafael had a positive run-in, and will be a great, yet slightly naive, attacking option at right-back through the course.

United have a midweek fixture at home to Fulham in the Premier League, following it up again at Old Trafford this weekend versus Blackburn.

Both opponents should offer more opportunities for some squad rotation, but expect Scholes, Vidic, Tevez, Berbatov, and Carrick to start midweek, although some might be given consideration on the weekend as United's European fixture, away to Inter Milan, looms the following Tuesday.

Wayne Rooney is slowly returning from his own two month injury absence. He should ride the pine against Fulham and Blackburn, getting some work in before probably starting at the San Siro, partnering the Bulgarian Berba. Tevez should be getting games off and on with the England striker throughout United's potential 33 remaining matches.

The depth in Manchester United's squad, as key players get much needed rest, hasn't derailed the clinical bulldozing in recent fixtures, and portends well before a truly epic matchup of two of Europe's three on-form sides.

With a nod to Barcelona, who seem score four goals in every fixture and lead Real Madrid in Spain's domestic league by 10 points, United and Inter Milan represent the most powerful club in their respective regions both on current playing form and recent domestic history over the last few seasons.

Inter manager, likable narcissist Jose Mourinho, surely fancies himself succeeding the father-figure he continues to subtly idolize—Sir Alex—just as he surely fancies himself for any of life's positions. He might be filled with more anticipation than any other from the San Siro as the hopefully classic contest draws closer with omen for all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

City Untempted By Insanity

Intelligence, not desperation, ultimately prevailed in January for Manchester City and their rich owners, despite failing to pry Kaka from AC Milan.

The pursuit of the pricey Brazilian was mostly maligned by players and cynics, positing Doomsday theories for the Premier League and shaming City's almost superfluous bid.

Kaka chose to stay, which was probably the right decision for him, but it doesn't mean City were wrong to attempt.

While their audacious delegation to Italy failed, City succeeded to legitimize their status as an emerging top flight club. It was widely reported that Milan had accepted the bid, only for the player to decline the offer. As AC Milan took them quite seriously, Premier League teams may soon need to.

Instead of solely focusing on the Kaka saga with the rest of the world, the Sky Blues of Manchester finally addressed a defense that needed shoring for some time.

Nigel De Jong, the touted holding midfielder from Hamburg, was a rare prize in the European market. At 24, the Dutchman international has two qualities often not paired: steel and youth. His two performances for City confirmed his potential; his 30 caps for the Netherlands were also an indicator.

Finding a young midfielder, with experience, who can get stuck in, distribute the ball, and won't be overawed is a high prize and a rarity around the league, especially as 4-5-1 formations ring out among teams struggling to cope with the five or six premier clubs in the top flight.

City added a consistent performer to their defense when they signed the underused Wayne Bridge from Chelsea.

The 28-year-old Englishman suffered the last four years playing behind the more fashionable Ashley Cole. Now in Manchester, Bridge will provide some natural width to a seriously lacking defense. He should resume his contention for the national team with regular playing time, which benefits the club's stature and brings pride to English fans.

The arrival of Craig Bellamy is something many fans have had to cope with. The forward once described by Newcastle legend Bobby Robson as "a man who could start a fight in an empty room" is therefore a very well-travelled man, in fact, now at his eighth professional club.

But, City really only need him the 29-year old this season—while he's in form, and before he gets injured—to reach the UEFA Cup spot they so desperately require to attract top-class talent in the summer. Such talent would then replace Bellamy.

Their final move of the window was quite a coup in itself, when City signed want-away Shay Given from the dysfunction of Newcastle. Given was a stalwart for the Magpies over the last decade, one of the few solids at an ever-changing club, during which time only Brad Friedal could claim to have enjoyed more consistently dominant form at the goalkeeper than the Irishman.

Entoto, City's moves during the window were much more pragmatic than most people suspected and some cynics hoped.

Being so ostentatiously rich meant other clubs saw them coming from miles away in their transfer pursuits. But, City weren't held hostage, and didn't pay especially exorbitant kitties, even though the wealth and willingness of the new owners was well-advertised.

City look certain to continue their quest to bolster ranks in the summer, where big-money deals are more viable as players consider the contrast in green of grasses on different pitches across Europe. Of course, the field at City of Manchester Stadium is rooted in boundless Arab cash, giving it a unique tint with a certain, added allure.

But in order to truly land the world's elite talent, City cannot waste time in proving prove their sincerity on the pitch, where, for 90 minutes, money has no bearing.

And with the sensible additions of the goalkeeper Given, the tackling midfielder De Jong, an in-form Bellamy, and an experienced left-back in Bridge, Manchester City are the most improved side in the England top flight during the January window.