Fantasy Premier League 2015-2016

eplThe 2015-2016 Barclay’s English Premier League is upon us! Time for “football” fans to rejoice as the chase for the cup begins. There have been some big moves in the EPL this year, not surprisingly coming from the top teams; Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. Yet we can’t forget the middle of the pack teams who make up a bulk of the action, as well as the newly promoted clubs; newcomers, AFC Bournemouth, Norwich City and Watford!

This is 4th year I have participated in Fantasy Premier League. While I haven’t done well in the past, it’s been a real learning experience. Much like jumping into fantasy football that is played in the US, following the NFL, it takes times, lots of studying in order to “get it right” the first time. Now I won’t say I have a got anything right when it comes to spending my £100 on 15 players that will make up my squad, Go’Orns (which is short for Go Hornets, the nick for Watford).

I have spent more time this year than I have the previous 4 years learning, studying and tinkering with my squad. Every time I finish a new article I find myself shuffling players in and out. Unlike NFL fantasy football, where you a waiver wire, you only get a single transfer (not including your wild cards) per week playing the EPL.. So getting your team correct starting gameweek 1 is very important. My confidence is running very high, as it usually does before the start of any fantasy league.

Injuries and fatigue from summer play have impacted a few notable players on the eve of kickoff. This has seen players like Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Agüero and Diego Costa, all questionable, all of whom were top scorers last season. I don’t know how many times I have shuffled my lineup with all three them on the pitch at one time or another the last month. Yet, as we look towards Man. U v Spurs, I think I have finally secured my lineup for the start of the season.

Goalkeepers: Petr Cech, ARS / Wayne Hennessy, CRY
There were two schools of thought for the man between the sticks, go cheap and rotate keepers on lower teams based on their strength of schedule. Initially this is how I was set up, but after further thought and consideration I decided I wanted a goalkeeper I could start and forget. The man to fill that position, Petr Cech, Arsenal, newly acquired from rival Chelsea. After relegation to a back up roll at Chelsea last season, Arsenal might have the final piece of the puzzle to challenge for a league title. No doubt Cech will take that defense to the next level with the likes of  Per “BFG” Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny anchoring the defense. Cech alone is with a 5-10 wins during the year and will increase the number of of shutouts Arsenal records this year. At £5.5 he didn’t come cheap, but I feel the extra money is well spent. Backup goalkeeper is Wayne Hennessy of Crystal Palace, I don’t expect to use him, but at £4.0 he will see some starts as Julian Speroni is injured to start the year.

Defenders: Laurent Koscielny, ARS / Nathaniel Clyne LIV, Aaron Cresswell, WHU / Robert Huth, LEI / Matt Targett SOU

Defenders, much like goalkeepers can be had cheap and with a good rotation could benefit you based on their weekly match ups. It comes as no surprise that Chelsea has the top three defenders based on price (Ivanovic, Terry and Cahill). At one point I decided to anchor my defense with Ivanovic, but soon realized that would leave me a few million pounds short through the midfield and up front. For much of the month I had Caesar Azpilicueta slotted as my route into the Chelsea defense, a rock solid performer who will undoubtedly see improvement this year from last. Yet it was just a few days ago I opted for Laurent Koscielny to anchor my defense. The reason why, falls to the man between the sticks, Petr Cech. Koscielny can perform on both ends of the pitch. He is prone to yellow cards, but 3 goals and 11 shutouts last year could potentially increase by the end of the season. Nathaniel Clyne moved to Liverpool and will control the right side, with ability to get up and down the field, he scored twice last year and added two assists with 13 clean sheets. At £5.5 he isn’t cheap, but could be worth every pound spent on his return. Aaron Cresswell rounds out my starting three, he played every minute of every game last year and recorded 129 points. With some questions in the Hammers midfield, Cresswell could improve on his 4 assists last year. Robert Huth and Aaron Targett round out my 5 defenders and currently I don’t plan on playing either of them unless there is an emergency.

Midfielders: Eden Hazard, CHE / Santi Cazorla, ARS / Victor Wanyama, SOU / Raheem Sterling, MCI / Jordan Henderson LIV

As expected the bulk of my £100 went into the midfield position, spending £40.5! If I were to adjust my forwards and save £1.5 to £2.0 I could conceivably be starting 5 midfielders. The thought has crossed my mind numerous times, but only realistically started looking at that option last night. Not sure I want to tinker too much with the lineup at this point. No surprised to see Hazard leading the group, high scorer last year and I don’t see him slowing down this year. He is a “must have” on your fantasy team. In a surprise move I decided to add Raheem Sterling, after his move to City, playing with a group of talented midfielders, Sterling could shine in his first season. It’s money well spent and he comes in £1.0 less than David Silva (another midfielder I had slotted a few times). I fully expect to sell Sterling when Aguero is healthy to strengthen my forwards, which means I will trade down for a second tier midfielder such as Yannick Bolasie from Palace or Matt Richie, Bournemouth. For a few weeks it was Mesut Özil in my starting five, finally playing in the 10 spot for the Gunners, but after further consideration I swapped him out and added Santi Cazorla, who is favored from the spot and free kicks. Behind Sanchez, he was the second highest scoring Gunner last year. I could see him clipping 200 points this year with the addition of a few more assists and an increase in shutouts, thanks to Cech. Since Liverpool didn’t keep Steven Gerrard, the armband was passed to Jordan Henderson, 162 last year topped the team. With new boys Firmino, Milner and Ibe, I do see Henderson being a 90 minute player. The addition of Benteke and Ings up front with a healthy (whenever that it) Sturridge and Henderson could come into his own this season for L’pool.  Victor Wanyama was my budget buy coming in at £4.5, while playing near 2400 minutes last year with 3 goals and 1 assist. Hopefully Wanyama won’t get lost with Tadic and Mané prowling the midfield for Southampton.

Forwards: Wayne Rooney MUN / Christian Benteke LIV / Callum Wilson BOU

This group has undergone many changes and might see one more revision before I finalize my starters for the weekend. Rooney was actually my third choice for a starting forward. Initially Agüero was penciled in as my starter, but after fatigue from Copa America this summer and the possibility of missing gameweek 1 I pulled him for Diego Costa (CHE), who’s start is in question because of a hamstring. So, Rooney it is. Playing back up top with a good complement of midfielders, Rooney could flourish this season, coming off a disappointing campaign last year. I will plan on selling Rooney when Agüero returns (along with Sterling). At one point it was Danny Ings slotted to start, but after Benteke made the move to Anfield, Ings fell by the wayside. But it was Romelu Lukaku who was going to partner with Rooney, but a hamstring injury might slow him. Benteke is a monster, who, when on is really on, but when off, can be a complete disaster. He’s got the midfield to feed him up front, so I will take a chance with Benteke as my #2. Third forward has been flip flopping between Troy Deeney of Watford and Callum Wilson of Bournemouth, both play for the newly promoted teams and while I favor Deeney because I am a Watford fan, I penciled in Wilson. Why? Wilson is the point of the attack for Bournemouth, while Deeney has Ighalo and Vydra in the mix. Still 3 years with 20+ goal season is how to deny, yet it was the lower league, but for now, Wilson gets the now. Hopefully one of these two bargain players end up being the new Charlie Austin.

I plan on a 3-4-3 lineup to start the season and have no money in the back. With any luck I will be able to hold on to my wildcard until Agüero returns. I don’t plan on rotating any players right now, but the rotation will show up in the defense first. Hopefully I can improve on my finish last year, but confidence is running very high, although there are still many unanswered questions.

2014 FIFA World Cup – Brazil

FIFA-world-cup-2014Four years of waiting is over and it all begins today as Brazil host Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The beautiful game returns to the heart of football, as São Paulo takes center stage today kicking off 30 days of football bliss. In a true world competition, it’s great to see 32 nations come together with the goal of winning the FIFA World Cup Trophy.

Much has been made of the draw and group selections, from the team who surprisingly made it and those who did not qualify. Looking over the 32 teams, it can quickly be reduced to a small, handful of teams who have a chance to win the competition this year.

Top of the bunch, EURO 2012 and World Cup 2010 winners, Spain top the list. Arguably, one of the best countries that have dominated the sport and major competitions the last few years. This country has one of the best starting XI and a very deep bench. Yet repeating as World Cup Champions is never an easy task, as host country Brazil has repeated 1958 and 1962 and Italy back in 1930 and 1934. Spain starts their quest on Friday against their 2010 World Cup final opponent, Holland. Talk about a game setting the tone for the rest of the cup, this is it.

My heart continues to scream “ITALIA!” but realistically I am not thrilled at their prospects past the group stage. Yet, they were a dark horse in the in the EURO 2012, when they made the finals after an amazing 2-1 victory over a stronger Germany team, but ended up burnt out dropping a 4-0 decision to Spain. Italy will go the way of Mario Balotelli. If Cesare Prandelli can keep the big man involved and happy, Italy could make it to the quarterfinals. A great mix of young and old in the midfield led my Andrea Pirlo and Danielle DeRossi with a stalwart, Gigi Buffon between the posts.

This year I am picking Argentina, La Albiceleste, to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Brazil. Argentina should cruise through the group stage with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Their ticket out of Group F should be punched to the semifinals, where they could end up playing defending champions, Spain. Not an easy task, but the offense that La Albiceleste brings is going to be tough to stop. Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain lead the attack with Angel DeMaria, Maxi Rodriguez, Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano anchoring a good midfield. Their weakness could be on defense, but if their offense can find the back of the net 3-4 times games, Argentina will be set.

Brazil will carry the weight of their countrymen on their shoulder as the host nation this year. You can never count these skilled footballers out, but could their inexperience be their downfall? Neymar is being put in the spotlight up front to do the damage for Brazil, with Jô, Fred and Hulk. The midfield stacks up nicely with Ramires and playmaker, Oscar. The defense is very potent on offense with Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz. Good to see AS Roma defender Maicon part of the squad in could be his final World Cup at age 32.

I do think highly of Germany and Uruguay, but both teams have been struck with injury that could affect their run at the World Cup. The Germans lost their goal scoring threat in Marco Reus and will most likely be replaced by Chelsea star, André Schürrle. Four Germans have 100+ caps, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Poldolski and Miraslov Klose, they have the experience, which could play a major role in Brazil, as long as they can find some goals.

Uruguay looks to be competitive, but Luiz Suarez’s status is still in doubt for the first game. He put up some excellent numbers this year for Liverpool scoring 31 times. If he can’t go, then it will be the experience of Diego Forlan to take over the striker duties. Edison Cavani would need to step up his play to make up for the loss of Suarez. However I think La Celeste comes up just a bit short this World Cup.

While not really sleepers or dark horses, I do like Chile and Belgium both having great showings in Brazil. Belgium has been on everyone’s radar for some time with talent and experience and a game changer in Eden Hazard. Without doubht Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world as World Cup play starts. Pele has already tipped Chile as a favorite this year in Brazil. With a high tempo offense led by Alexi Sanchez and anchored by Autro Vidal, manager Jorge Sampaoli has his work cut out for him.

Beyond this group, I don’t see any other surprises in the tournament. You already know what little I think of US Soccer, Jurgen Klinsmann has similar thoughts. They MIGHT win one game in their group, but will be going home early. Portugal might be the only team some would see as a surprise not to progress. You can’t replace the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, Christiano Ronaldo, if he can’t go Portugal will struggle. Even if he plays, I don’t see Portugal advancing past the second round. France is the other team, after quitting on Raymond Domenech in South Africa 4 years ago, Les Bleus was stuck with an injury to Franck Ribery, which is the heart of their offense. While they should advance out of Group E, their run will end in the second round.

Can’t wait for a month full of world class football from one of the greatest footballing countries in the world, Brazil. Hopefully the protests don’t interfere and the stadiums are ready and safe. Football is here, get ready to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

World Cup 2014 Draw

brazil2014The die has been cast and the 2014 World Cup Draw is complete. It will be another year the Men’s US Soccer Team will be eliminated before the World Cup kicks off in Brazil in 2014.  It’s no secret, I am not a fan of American “soccer” but the US has been dealt into the “Group of Death” (Group G) with Germany, Ghana and Portugal. Germany eliminated the US in 2002 and Ghana got them back to back in 2006 and 2010. Germany is currently ranked #2 and Portugal, #5 in the FIFA World Rankings. Ghana, currently ranked #24 took third place in the 2013 African Cup of Nations.

Many eyes and commentary will come from Group G because of 3 quality teams that could come out of this group. I believe it will be Germany and Portugal coming out of the group and moving on. A case could be made for Group D as the Group of Death with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy. 2010 World Cup and Euro 2010 and 2012 Champions, Spain will be looking to retain their title and the #1 ranking as they are grouped with Netherlands, Chile and Australia.

The host nation, Brazil has a golden path to the knockout stage facing Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. I am not fooled by their #10 ranking, as they have been playing some great football, most recently defeating Chile 2-1 in November. Another South American powerhouse, Argentina (#3 in the world) probably have the easiest of all groups with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria.

Group C has #4 Columbia with Côte d’Ivoire, Greece and Japan. Columbia most recently defeated Belgium, 2-0 and drew against Netherlands. Côte d’Ivoire brings the last hurrah for Didier Drogba, now 35, but CIV is loaded with talent. France celebrated when they shocked the football world by making it out of qualifying and now the fooball gods give them a favorable draw in Group E with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.

While I like the draw for the Azzurri, I still believe they don’t have enough talent to make it to the finals. Much like Euro 2012, Italy advanced defeated England, then Germany in the semi-finals (2-1), but had nothing left for the finals versus Spain, losing 4-0. Speaking of Spain, I like them to repeat as World Cup Champions. They play on level above most every other team with some of the best players in the world at their core. I do like Brazil, but as the host nations, they have the weight of the county on their shoulders. Brazil at home will be tough to stop. My dark horse this year, Belgium. Although some will argue they are a contender, they have a loads of young talent ready to take the world stage.

Matches begin June 12, 2014 as host, Brazil take on Croatia in Arena de São Paulo, São Paulo.

Forza Italia!

UEFA EURO 2012 ends today in Kyiv as Italy takes on defending champions, Spain in the final. Whatever the outcome, the Italians put together a very good run in the tournament. My pre-tournament favorite to win EURO 2012 was the defending champions, Spain. I didn’t expect this sort of showing from Italy, but they have surprised fans and the world advancing to the finals.

I do believe is Italy played like their did their first match of the competition, when they went 1-0 on Spain in the 61st minute, only to give up the equalizing goal 3 minutes later. Yet the Italians only played for 61 minutes and could not finish off the Spaniards. I think we saw a much different, determined squad in the semi-finals versus Germany. They had the on pitch prowess and a determination to get the job done. The struck fast and controlled every facet of the game. For all the accolades Germany had up to this point, with their talent, skill and experience, as well as being a favorite to win, Italy quieted them all.

Hard to go against the Italians at this point, who have the momentum coming off a big win. Spain struggled against Portugal and never got into their game, yet still had enough, as you would expect the FIFA #1 ranked team to do. It should be a very competitive game, but expect a 1-0 victory for Italy in regular time.

Italia Destiny

As a big fan of Italian football my expectations were low as start of the 2012 UEFA European Championship approached. After the Azzurri crashed out in South Africa in 2010, I thought their approach this season didn’t provide enough experience to compete on the international level. Yet their convincing 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-finals has reignited the excitement we experienced in 2008 when Italy defeated France to win the World Cup in Germany.

There are only a few holdovers from the 2008 World Cup team, including world class keeper, Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom bring experience and leadership to the 2012 UEFA squad (DeRossi and Barzagli were also on the ’08 squad). The 2010 World Cup was a forgettable event for Italy. Injuries to both Buffon and Pirlo, as well as an aging Azzurri saw them crash out in the group stage, finishing last. It was truly a low point for Italian football.

Enter Cesare Prandelli, succeeding 2006 World Cup manager, Marcello Lippi, who was a favorite, but rather set in his way when it came to the “old guard” who has worn the kit of the Azzurri. Prandelli wasn’t afraid to make changes, which he did. Many of the well known, now aging footballers were not recalled for international duty, the up and coming younger names got their chance.

Expectations, in my mind were not high entering this tournament, but the team did seem to have a good mix of old and new. It comes as no surprise that Buffon (119 caps) and Pilro (88 caps) are leading the way for Italia at age 33 and 34 respectively. On the other end are the young guns, players like Mario Balotelli, 21 years old (13 caps) and Riccardo Montolivo, 27 (36 caps) and Claudio Marchisio, 26 years old (25 caps). These will be names representing Italy in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

While their success in Euro 2012 has been wonderful, I believe it could be short lived. It’s great to see Balotelli playing very well (4 goals) and better yet, keep his head together and playing like the up and coming superstar he could he. There’s also some good younger talent in the midfield, but no “maestro” like Pirlo to control the game. I like Daniele De Rossi, but he is more of a defensive midfielder and doesn’t manage the game like Pirlo. We might have to wait and see, Pirlo will be 35 when the World Cup rolls around, he might be available for Brazil.

Mario Ballotelli has been playing above expectations. The knock against him has been his “disciplinary problems” a few years back at Inter while Jose Mourinho was manager. “Balotelli continued to be the subject of racist chants throughout the season, becoming the focus of Juventus fans even during games not involving Inter, leading to Juventus being fined twice and the club ultimately punished with a partial stadium closure” (source). Now at Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, Ballotelli has been playing much better. During this tournament he is garnering consideration as player of the tournament.

More pressing issues are in goal. Behind Buffon is a total of 7 caps between  Salvatore Sigiru (age 25) and Morgan De Sanctis (age 35). At age 34, I could see Buffon returning for one more shot at glory in Brazil. Hopefully during that time we could see another keeper step up and represent the national team. The only other recent call up was Emiliano Viviano (6 caps). Buffon’s leadership and experience has made the best keeper in the world and has put Italy into the position they are in now, to possibly win Euro 2012 when they face Spain on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Italy’s national team and fans should be proud at how the team has come together and played the last month. It does provide fans with a bright future with young talent being capped. Still there are some questions to answer. With any luck it will be the guidance of Prandelli and the combination of young talent and experience that wins the Henri Delaunay Trophy and allows Italy to qualify and be competitive for World Cup 2014.

Euro 2012 Update

I have been fortunate enough to catch just about every minute of the UEFA European Championship co-hosted by Poland/Ukraine. As of today all teams have played two of their three group stage games and only three teams are out of contention; Republic of Ireland, Sweden and surprisingly, the Netherlands. In my predictions I had the Dutch to make it to the finals. With all the talent and experience they brought to the European Championships, it just did not translate well on the pitch, scoring only 1 goal through two games.

Germany hasn’t been as impressive as many have reported. I do believe their defense is suspect, outside of Philip Lahm and Manuel Neuer in goal. I don’t even think it’s fair to compare on the same level as Spain, who have been much more impressive, especially in their 4-1 victory over Ireland. Yeah, it was just Ireland but I think Spain is only getting warmed up and should walk right into the finals.

Italy has pissed me off though. In 2 games they have played 90 minutes of good football, lost the leads both times in the second half and gone into a defensive shell to salvage a draw versus Spain and Croatia. They need to step up their performance and play 90 minutes against the Republic of Ireland to secure 3 points to have a chance to move into the quarterfinals.

France, my dark horse and England have both played well and sit on 4 points, which should see them both through to the quarterfinals. I was impressed with the changes Roy Hodgson made up front opting for Andy Carroll as his lone striker, a move that paid off. But more surprising was the fact England rebounded from 2-1, staged a nice comeback and defeated the Swedes, 3-2. I only see England stronger with Wayne Rooney returning in their final game versus Ukraine.

Finally, Russia. The have played very well through 2 games, including the 4-1 trashing of the Czech Republic, but could only muster a draw versus co-host, Poland. Not sure what sort of chance they stand once in the quarterfinals where they could face Portugal or Denmark. Offensive they have been strong with the attack mentality, yet the play of goalie, Vyacheslav Malafeev has been very good. Russia quietly making noise in these championships.

So far it’s been some enjoyable football, at times a bit sloppy from some teams. That might to be expected, even though these players are professional they aren’t playing with each other on a full time basis (unless of course you are Spain). Thankfully the play has been fairly fluid with not many games being decided by the officiating. I have liked the 5th official on the goal line, thankfully their decisions have not come into play at this point.

UEFA European Championship Predictions

This year footballers and their fans get to experience UEFA European Championship 2012 co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. Matches begin June 8, with the final being played on July 1. This championship is played every 4 years, the years in which the World Cup is not played. Next to that event, this is the championship that gives some indication as to potential winners or contenders in the upcoming World Cup, the next one to be played in Brazil in 2014.

This season Spain comes in as heavy favorites, winning this championship in 2008 defeating Germany, 1-0. Two years later Spain defeated Netherlands, 1-0 to record their first World Cup win. This vaulted Spain to the top spot in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Ranking. This year for the European Championship, Spain enters as the top ranked team and the favorite, in my opinion to hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy in Kiev, Ukraine on July 1.

As a nation, Spain has been playing some outstanding football. Looking back on the 2011-2012 season it’s no surprise to see Real Madrid and Barcalona end up in the semi-finals of the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. Add to that the 2011-2012 UEFA Europa League saw two Spanish sides – Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao in the finals. While neither Real Madrid or Barcelona made the finals, they still contribute 12 players (out of 23) to the national team (15 if you include Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao).

One player Spain won’t have will be David Villa, who suffered a broken tibia in a Club World Cup match in Yokohama against Al Sadd. His skills and experience (82 caps, 51 goals) will be missed in this competition, but I feel it opens the door for Fernando Torres (92 caps, 28 goals), while not in form much of the year for Chelsea could bring his name back into prominence. Even with this injury, Spain still will be the beast to contend with. They should have very few problems winning Group C (Italy, Ireland, Croatia) to face the runner-up from Group D (Ukraine, Sweden, France, England) in the quarterfinals, which in my opinion will be England, as France wins the group.

Of the 16 teams involved in the championship, I feel there are only 5 teams with a legitimate chance to win in Poland/Ukraine. I have already cited Spain, who I feel are the odds on favorite. The other 4 teams; Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. My dark horse team, France. Sorry England. Sorry Italy. I don’t feel either of these teams are complete, especially Italy who’s off the field problems and lack of talent could be evident in his competition. As for England, the Premiership is one of the best leagues in the world (right there with La Liga), but many players involved are not English, coming to England to play. Outside of Wayne Rooney up front, his 3 goals on the international stage since 2010 is a big concern. Thankfully Joe Hart has really come on the last season or two and will be the starting keeper, which is a big improvement over what we saw in the 2012 World Cup. By way of comparison with teams like Spain and Germany, the midfield and defense of England is just average.

Netherlands seems to be solid all around on the pitch. With Edwin Van de Saar retiring from football, Maarten Stekelenburg (46 caps) will be asked to fill some big shoes between the pipes as he leads the Dutch in this competition. Up front The Flying Dutchmen are strong led by Robin Van Persie (64 caps, 26 goals), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (52 caps, 31 goals) and Dirk Kuyt (87 caps, 24 goals). Van Persie comes off his best season for Arsenal scoring 30 goals and in very good form. The midfield is strong and controlling with the elder statesman, Mark van Bommel, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart. The defense would be considered their weak point, but they are anchored by John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen. Netherlands will battle Portugal and Germany for top honors in Group B, which is my “Group of Death” with one of those three teams going home.

“Zee Germans!” They are coming and fielding one of the most experienced group of footballers in this competition. Much like the Italy World Cup team in 2006, this German squad is composed mainly of players who play in Germany. There are a few exception, such as Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Mesut Özil Real Madrid), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal) and Miroslav Klose (Lazio). Watching Manuel Neuer play in the final few games of the Champions League, proved me they have a world class stopper. Germany does have experience on defense with Philipp Lahm (86 caps), Per Mertesacker (81 caps), in the midfield with Bastian Schweinsteiger (90 caps), Lukas Podolski (97 caps) and up front with Miroslav Klose (116 caps).

Currently Germany is ranked #2 in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Rankings, but much like Netherlands are in Group B and don’t have easy matches against the Dutch and Portugal. Germany were runners-up back in 2008 when they were defeated by Spain, 1-0. While I still like the Dutch, Germany has the work ethic and experience to win this group and much weaker opponent in the quarterfinals. It would not surprise me a bit to see Germany back in the finals. In order to do that, they may have to face Spain in the semi-finals if both nations win their respective groups.

Portugal is currently ranked #5 in the world rankings. When one thinks of Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the image conjured up. He is the captain of the squad and the most experienced (89 caps, 32 goals). As I have already mentioned they are in a difficult position having to play Germany and the Netherlands in Group C and if I had to pick a team not to make it out of qualifying, it would be Portugal.

Their friendly matches up to this point haven’t been all that impressive, playing some very weak teams, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland and Luxembourg. In many of their victories though, they did put up 4 or more goals (last 6 matches). We will have to see if they are able to play with the challenging competition in their group. They open the European Championship with Germany.

My dark horse this year’s European Cup is France. Many who know me probably thought I would say Italy, but with their national team being “in transition” with a mix of experience and lots of youth, they will struggle. France, while not overly experienced have been played good football internationally, losing only (to Germany) dating back to August, 2011. They drew England in their first match, which will be the toughest nation to face in their group.

This nation has much to prove after the failing to get out of the group stage in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, going 0-1-2. I never was a big fan of their former manager, Raymond Domenech who was at the head of the controversy after “Nicolas Anelka’s expulsion from the squad, prompted by a profanity-laced tirade against coach Raymond Domenech” (source). It was an ugly situation for the FFF. Hopefully under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus can return to the international stage with a good showing.

As it stands, the other 11 teams just filling out the groups. I don’t doubt these national squads are composed of the best each nation has to offer, but they are all under Spain. Regardless of who wins, this will be a great start to the summer with only a short break before the new seasons kick off in August. If it’s not evident I will pick Spain to retain their championship with the Netherlands as the runners-up.

Sorry USA

Why some will view it as anti-American, I am not a fan of U.S. Men’s Soccer. Overall they do not have (or had in the past) a team that can compete on an international stage, regardless of the manager. The bottom line, their players who don the red, white and blue are not experienced, nor do many of them be quality minutes in top flight football. I don’t believe starting a full season in the MLS really counts, as the competition is no better than a lower division in countries such as England, Spain or Brazil.

Last night I watch Brazil play out an easy 4-1 victory over the USA in Washington DC. While I missed the first half, I was not at all impressed with their play after watching 45 minutes. They were resilient and did not give up. Some will say they were unlucky and could have been rewarded with another goal or two. Conversely Brazil missed out on a few easy goals as well. The USA should not be hoping luck will get them to World Cup 2014.

Outside Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Carlos Bocanegro (Rangers), Michael Bradley (Chievo), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) and Tim Howard (Everton), the team is light on quality footballers applying their trade in top leagues abroad. Unfortunately starting in the MLS doesn’t provide the level of talent many of these players will experience on the international stage. Given many of the elder statesmen, like Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegro  and Tim Howard, who constitute the bulk of international experience will probably not play after the 2014 World Cup.

It would surprise me if the USA missed out on qualifying for the World Cup in 2014. I do like Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm, a manager with years of experience, with that international flair that had been missing on US teams for many years. Chalk that up to  the national team staying domestic with names like Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena and most recently Bob Bradley. I wish Klinsmann all the luck in the world, but unless he can make something out of this team, the clock is already ticking.

Chelsea: Best in Europe

Another amazing football final last night in Munich as Bayern Munich hosted Chelsea in the Champions League Final. Much like that last few games I have watch, including the nPower Championship Final yesterday, the last day of the Barclay’s Premiership and the semifinal match featuring Real Madrid and Chelsea, this has been one of the best finishes I can recall.

I wrote about the Manchester City thriller in stoppage time to steal the Premiership trophy away from Manchester United. Yesterday was another thrilling finale as West Ham United defeated Blackpool to gain entry into the Premiership next season in a late goal thriller from Ricardo Vaz Te. This game seemed to set the stage for the main attraction, Bayern Munich, hosting Chelsea in their home country, on their home pitch.

While it started a bit slow and didn’t seem like it had the pizazz the semifinals had when Chelsea played Real Madrid, the game alive in the second half. The football Gods must have been wearing blue, because Chelsea got break after break, not only for the 90 minutes of the match, but into extra time and then the shoot out.

It was Bayern’s night, yet they seemed to have forgotten their shooting boots last night as very little went on target.  After Thomas Müller put Bayern up 1-0 in the 83rd minute, it seemed the game was over, yet there was more magic to come for a team who’s destiny was written during this Champions League.

Chelsea struck back in the 88th minute when Mata corner kick found the head of Didier Drogba. The power and finesse of the header beat Neuer and we were tied. For much of the game, it was Bayern on attack and  Chelsea defending. Yet Chelsea was able to capitalize when it was needed.

Drogba, nearly turned goat when he committed a foul in the penalty box and Arjen Robben stepped up to take it. Even the sure footed Arjen Robben failed from the penalty spot as Petr Cech dove to his left to make a sure stop on Robber. The rest of the extra time periods went scoreless, it was off to the penalty shoot out.

Not sure where I stand on penalty shoot outs, as it’s a crappy way to lose a game, but there is much thrill and excitement in a 1v1 situation from 12 yards out. While Chelsea started off with a save from Neuer, it came down to the final kick for Chelsea and the boot of Drogba again. He sent Neuer the opposite was as he tucked the ball in the lower left corner of the net and sent Chelsea on to victory.

Much like the end of the Premier League, the last few rounds for Chelsea fans were heart stopping and thrilling to view, even as a non-Chelsea fan. They now take their place atop all others as Champions League Champions and the best in Europe. Some debate still will arise as to Chelsea being the best. Madrid is a very solid team, I was highly impressed with Bayern last night. Unfortunately much of the make up of Chelsea don’t hail from England, so while it’s a great club victory for the Blues, I fear England will have a tough time in the upcoming Euro 2012. As for the $1 billion spent on this Chelsea team, time will tell who stays and who goes.

Match Day 38 was Premier!

It’s called The Premier League for a reason and Match Day 38 culminated in one of the best climax’s in English football I have seen. Many announcers commented on the excitement this season as Manchester United and Manchester City battled with 18 other teams, which came down to 5 minutes of extra time before the league champion was crowned.

I am sorry to say most American’s can’t understand the excitement of football…soccer as many know it as. Not sure why, maybe because 45 minutes of continuous action is too long to follow. No commercials, means no beer runs. For some it’s the lack of scoring, a 1-0 game can be a thrilling game, much like a pitchers duel in baseball. Many I know find the game of football…err soccer boring. That’s fine. Many people give me about 3 minutes of watching the beautiful game with me, while at work, make a few comments and move on.

Fair enough, but today’s action some of the most amazing football I have seen played! It came down to the final day as both teams came in tied on points, but Manchester City had the goal differential advantage, a number that Manchester United would not be able to overcome. Unfortunately Manchester United let a lead slip away between Match Days 33-36, scoring only 3 points to Manchester City’s 12 points including a shocking loss to Wigan Athletic and derby loss 1-0. Either one of those games go for 3 points, even a 1 poin and Manchester United would have won their 13th Premier title, but it wasn’t to be today.

Queens Park Rangers played all out today, especially after thug, Joey Barton was sent off with a red card for an elbow thrown at Carlos Tevez in the 55th minute. Just 7 minutes prior Djibril Cisse had tied the game at 1-1, after a defensive lapse by Joleon Lescott. It would be 11 minutes later that would change the course of the game as Armand Traoré made a run past the Man City defense down the left side and his cross found an unmarked Jamie Mackie, who’s diving header put QPR up 2-1.

It was the 10 men defense of QPR and the play of Paddy Kenny that kept QPR on top, as Manchester City dominated possession and the shot advantage, but they came out without their shooting boots on. Yet Kenny came up with very big saves until the end of the game.

Thanks in part to Joey Barton’s red card and the ensuing drama getting him off the pitch, 5 minutes of stoppage time were added. This would be costly for QPR and conversely Manchester United, who played out their 3 minutes of stoppage time, defeating Sunderland, 1-0 and claiming the Premier League. Their celebration was very short lived.

Back to back goals in the 94th and 95th minute of the match sealed the victory and the league for Manchester City. Edin Džeko came off the bench in the 69th minute and his head found the ball off a corner kick, which brought Etihad Stadium to it’s feet! On the ensuing kickoff, QPR gave up the ball and went back into it’s defensive posture, which had been very good since going down to 10 men. Unfortunately the last minute of stoppage time saw Sergio Aguero beat the slide tackle of Taiwo and launch a shot near post, which found it’s way past the defense and Kenny to seal the victory for Manchester City.

It was truly an amazing end to an amazing season. Hopefully the Champions League Final between Bayern München and Chelsea prove to be just as exciting. For those who watched the semi-final between Barcalona v Chelsea, today’s Man Cit v QPR game was similar in nature, as Chelsea played down a man for much of the second half in that game and turned back every attack that Barcalona (arguably the best team in the world) threw at them. As a result of the 2 goals today, QPR gained a bit of respect and will remain in the Premier League for another season, avoiding relegation.

Football Weekend….in the UK

It’s more often than not I wish we lived in the U.K. where the nation’s sport was football. No, not the American kind you find owners locking out players over their collective bargaining agreement and not being able to agree on $9 billion. That’s the NFL for you. This weekend kicked of the action in the English Premier League. Unfortunately being stuck at work on opening weekend I was only able to catch parts of about 4 games, along with highlights from the day.

For me the match of the day was Liverpool v. Sunderland. After the frustrating 2010-2011 season for L’pool it started off on the wrong foot with a draw against the Black Cats. After missing a penalty shot, Luis Suárez redeemed himself with a 12′ goal. That lead would last until 57′ minute when a beautiful volley found the far side of the goal from Sebastian Larsson. An early season goal that could end up being the goal of the year.

Not too surprising to see four games end in draws on Saturday, including the Gunners v. Newcastle and Joey Barton. Barton was deliberately stepped on by Alex Song, the officials missed it and that incident led to a later disagreement that involved Barton and Gervinho, who was red carded.

Today we will see how Manchester United starts against West Brom and Chelsea against Stoke City. Monday we will see other big off-season spenders, Manchester City v. Swansea City. It looks to be another great season in top flight football in the EPL. I plan to be very involved watching this season, as well as Serie A and the battle at the top in La Liga! Also great to know the Mexican League is very early to watch on Saturday afternoons. Viva Cruz Azul!

WWC: Not For Me

While I am a footie fan and follow the game worldwide, I am not a fan of the MLS, WPS or either the men’s or women’s USA national teams. Some individuals I talk to were surprised that I had no interest in watching the Women’s World Cup. Maybe it’s much like the WNBA, while their skills could be technically sound, watching them play is not my idea of exciting. I won’t deny what the women’s team have achieved in the past as they go for their third World Cup Championship (as I understand it).

As for the men’s team, their skill level is not on par with that of countries and clubs worldwide. There are some individual players who have made their livelihood playing abroad, for example Tim Howard, goalkeeper for Everton. Unfortunately after his little tirade when he was a sieve against Mexico I have lost much of the respect I had for one of the USA’s best players.

The game played in the states is not on par with the top leagues in countries like England, Spain, Italy just to name a few. Again, I have nothing to compare the women too since I have no idea the level of play of leagues outside the USA. I can’t even begin to comment on the WPS since the league is of no interest.

I am glad to see many non-soccer enthusiasts excited for the Women’s World Cup final, but I won’t be one of the many watching or really caring about the outcome of the game. For me the excitement begins with the new EPL season, August 13th with friendly matches kicking off this weekend.