Category Archives: soccer

English Premier League predictions 2016-2017

English Premier League Predictions 2016-2017

Last season, Leicester City washed away the ennui that had accumulated since 2004, the last time a club other than Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City were champions of England. It speaks volumes about the current state of the game that these rank outsiders, who narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, became every neutral’s second side and plucky underdog against England’s mega-rich clubs. Leicester City are, of course, only moderately rich, having been purchased in 2010 by Thai-led consortium, Asian Football Investments. That sleight of hand was made possible by their affable manager, Claudio Ranieri, and the fact that their team consisted of hidden gems (Mahrez, Kanté, Vardy) and players who failed to make the grade at more glamorous clubs (Drinkwater, Albrighton, Schmeichel, Simpson).

Their tremendous accomplishment should give every team the belief that they, too, can achieve the improbable. More likely, normal service will be resumed, though there are a number of intriguing subplots to this season. Foremost is the renewal of hostilities between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho at Manchesters City and United. Their rivalry comes against the backdrop of some obscene transfer fees, including United’s world record £89m for Paul Pogba, a player who left them on a free transfer four years ago. Pogba, in my view, lacks the consistency and frankly the quality to justify such a price tag. But this summer has also seen the good-but-not-great Gonzalo Higuaín move for £75.3m, and John Stones, who failed to even feature for a diabolical England side at Euro 2016, being bought for £47.5m.

Here are my predictions for how they will all finish, with key players in parenthesis.

  1. Manchester City (De Bruyne)
  2. Manchester United (De Gea)
  3. Arsenal (Sanchez)
  4. Chelsea (Hazard)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (Eriksen)
  6. Everton (Williams)
  7. Liverpool (Firmino)
  8. West Ham (Noble)
  9. Southampton (Tadic)
  10. Stoke City (Arnautović)
  11. Bournemouth (Ibe)
  12. Watford (Deeney)
  13. Leicester City (Mahrez)
  14. West Brom (Rondón)
  15. Crystal Palace (Cabaye)
  16. Burnley (Arfield)
  17. Swansea City (Sigurðsson)
  18. Middlesbrough (Negredo)
  19. Sunderland (Defoe)
  20. Hull (Huddlestone)

FA Cup: Arsenal
Europa League: Napoli
Champions League: Barcelona
La Liga: Barcelona
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich
Ligue 1: PSG
Serie A: Juventus

englandExit

Mid-Euro 2016

Growing up in 80s and 90s America, I was starved for televised soccer. The only reliable source was Dutch football at 6am, featuring exotic sides like Willem II, Go Ahead Eagles, and NEC Breda. That was immediately followed by Gaelic football, an intriguing chimera of soccer and rugby, which I’ve never seen or heard of since. On very special occasions, I stumbled across a European Cup match, most often involving Manchester United against a classic club from the mainland. I cursed as Nicky Butt shot high over the bar into a sea of ominous red flares. I swooned as Lee Sharpe used his heel to drag in a cross behind his standing leg against Barcelona. Given a binary choice between English and Dutch football, I chose to bear the cross of St George.

My first real memory of a major tournament was the England-less World Cup in 1994. I drank in even unappealing fixtures like Saudi Arabia vs Morocco and South Korea vs Bolivia. I watched Oleg Salenko put five goals past Cameroon and Diego Maradona enjoy his last, cocaine-addled swansong in the colors of Argentina. My heart sank as Ray Houghton scored to beat Italy in the group stage, while Arrigo Sachi sacrificed my hero, Roberto Baggio, following a Gianluca Pagliuca handball. I was in Foxboro later in the tournament to see Baggio drag Italy through against Nigeria, equalizing in the 88th minute before scoring the winner in extra time. My heart sank again as Baggio’s missed penalty in the final kept rising over the bar, high into the crowd at the Rose Bowl. None of this prevented me from declaring myself Buddhist and seeking my own “divine ponytail.” I’ve never loved another player in the same way.

Technology and television is scarcely recognizable in 2016 America, where I routinely ignore even moderately glamorous ties like Germany vs Slovakia. Having two kids under age two doesn’t help, but the fact is that I’m spoiled for soccer on TV. Still, I try to watch England whenever possible, because the national team continues to feel like an enigma with which I can entirely relate.

The English media, and by extension, English fans, must admit complicity in their team’s pathological failure. Familiar explanations are wheeled out in the post-mortem of each major tournament:

  1. The players just aren’t good enough, and the European successes of Premier League teams can be explained by a combination of foreign talent and successful marketing.
  2. The players are technically good enough, but haven’t the mental strength to handle the pressure of expectations.

The solutions are equally predictable:

  1. England must invest in grassroots football and coaching.
  2. England must embrace its historical strengths of athleticism, power, and directness.
  3. England must copy the style and structure of Spain/France/Iceland/latest winner.
  4. England must drastically reduce the proportion of foreign players in the Premier League.
  5. England must lower its expectations.

Each of these theories contains some element of the truth, but all are born of the obsession of England’s press and public with the national team. Given the talent at the disposal of so many managers from Erikkson to Capello to Hodgson, I’d conclude that the true barriers to success are psychological.

Monday’s defeat to Iceland gives credence to this theory. Clearly, England have hugely experienced players in Joe Hart (two Premier League titles), Gary Cahill (one Premier League title, 1 Champions League title), and Wayne Rooney (5 Premier League titles, 1 Champions League title). They have talent and dynamism in young players like Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, Delle Alli, and Harry Kane. And yet they not only failed to perform against inferior opponents, they were absolutely embarrassed by them. Pity is the greatest form of contempt, and it was indeed pitiful to watch Kane blooter a free kick several yards wide. Rooney consistently sprayed passes into touch. Sterling couldn’t beat 31-year-old Birkir Sævarsson in a footrace. It was an astonishing collective collapse.

Barney Ronay’s excellent piece in the Guardian apportions the blame properly:

In the end the players are us and we are them. Like ill-mannered parents enraged by their ill-mannered kids, we stand there wondering why these normal, receptive human beings – not the best, but not the worst – play with such fear and angst in a knife-edge fine‑detail knockout game ringed by hostile faces.

This angst makes the English national team more complicated and compelling than any other, a subtext that in turn makes their matches more fascinating. At least for me, the day they break free from those shackles and win a tournament or even make a final, will be, at best, bittersweet.

SAS 2000

The SAS Dream Team

This morning, I got to bask in the warm glow of my long-past high school soccer career.

Back in the late ’90s, I was a goalkeeper for the Singapore American School, and captained the side during in my junior and senior years, which were also the first two years at the school for Coach Zitur. He recently selected his Dream XI, covering the 18 years he’s managed the team. It’s an honor to be the goalkeeper for this side, and reminds me of the fine players and men who were my teammates: Chris Carroll, Tim Lonergan, Yosuke Yamamoto, Jeremy Chang, Ben Regan, Drew Calvert, Kevin Scott, and Collin White.

Not included, but fondly remembered is Jason Peck, a solid fullback and good friend who recently passed away.

footballPredictions2

English Premier League Predictions 2014-2015

Another season of association football is upon us, which calls for another helping of painfully naive predictions. Like many others, I struggle to look past Chelsea for this year’s title, who have strengthened well enough that even Jose Mourinho claims to have no excuse for failure, an unprecedented occurrence that should strike fear into the hearts of rivals. In Cesc Fabregas, they have a wonderful player who Barcelona fans mysteriously failed to embrace, despite scoring better than a goal every three games and providing plenty of ammunition to Messi & co. Manchester United still look lightweight compared to their rivals, while Arsenal are buoyed by their capture of the aforementioned Sanchez, a fine player who nevertheless won’t make quite as much of an impact as Gunners fans hope. Read on for a look into the future of the final standings and key players come May 2015.

  1. Chelsea (Fabregas)
  2. Manchester City (Toure)
  3. Arsenal (Ramsey)
  4. Liverpool (Sterling)
  5. Manchester United (Rooney)
  6. Tottenham Hotspur (Eriksen)
  7. Everton (Baines)
  8. Newcastle (Siem de Jong)
  9. Southampton (Tadic)
  10. Stoke City (Moses)
  11. Swansea City (Williams)
  12. Aston Villa (Weimann)
  13. Queens Park Rangers (Rémy)
  14. Sunderland (Larsson)
  15. West Ham (Nolan)
  16. West Bromwich Albion (Foster)
  17. Crystal Palace (Campbell)
  18. Hull City (Ince)
  19. Leicester City (Ulloa)
  20. Burnley (Ings)

Bonus predictions:

  • Champions League: Real Madrid
  • Spain: Barcelona
  • Germany: Bayern Munich
  • Italy: Juventus
  • France: PSG

 

leftAtHome

A Best XI of Footballers Left at Home

The provisional squads for World Cup 2014 have been announced, and there are some notable absentees. Not surprisingly, it’s the best nations that can afford to leave behind high-profile players oozing with both quality and pedigree. Featuring Carlos Tevez, Isco, and Ashley Cole, this admittedly unbalanced and potentially volatile side would surely qualify from the group stage, and has enough goals throughout to worry any defense.

 

Diego Lopez

Rafael da Silva       Eric Abidal       Alvaro Arbeloa       Ashley Cole

Javier Pastore       Philippe Coutinho       Isco       Samir Nasri

Kaka

Carlos Tevez

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English Premier League Predictions 2013-2014

The English Premier League has seemed static for several years. Manchester United could always be counted among the favorites, with moneybags Chelsea & Manchester City posing the biggest challenge to that hegemony, and Arsenal certain to be thereabouts without ever really getting there. Spurs would always be fashionable outsiders, followed by an overachieving Everton, a cast of comfortably mid-table sides and newly promoted surprise packages. And after all of that, the dross: comedy clubs (Newcastle, QPR), plucky strugglers (Wigan, Reading), and desperately poor clubs (Wolves, Birmingham).

This summer’s managerial shakeup could change all of that. The catalyst, of course, was Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement after 26 years and 38 trophies. A few years ago, during a night out in London, I argued with an Aberdonian that Fergie was a poor tactician, and that his real strength lay in man-management. Certainly, he commanded absolute loyalty from every player he wanted to keep, knew how to eke years of fine service from players like Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand, and knew when to get rid. All of this compares favorably to other managers, even excellent ones like Arsene Wenger, who was only able to build one dominant side at Arsenal. By all counts, Ferguson built at least four.

Though a fine manager, David Moyes will struggle to fill his predecessors shoes, and even if he should eventually settle into the role, there is almost certain to be a rebuilding period as he stamps his own authority on the club. There are also ramifications for Everton, who Moyes managed for over a decade. With Jose Mourinho back at Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini newly installed at Manchester City, each of the top 3 finishers from last year have a new coach. In addition to an influx of new players, this is one of the more unpredictable seasons in recent memory. Nonetheless, here are my guesses for the final league table, with key player in parenthesis:

  1. Chelsea (Juan Mata)
  2. Manchester City (Sergio Aguero)
  3. Arsenal (Santi Cazorla)
  4. Manchester United (Robin Van Persie)
  5. Tottenham (Gareth Bale)
  6. Liverpool (Philippe Coutinho)
  7. West Ham (Kevin Nolan)
  8. Southampton (Adam Lallana)
  9. Everton (Leighton Baines)
  10. Swansea (Jonathan de Guzman)
  11. West Brom (James Morrison)
  12. Stoke (Robert Huth)
  13. Aston Villa (Gabriel Agbonlahor)
  14. Norwich (Ricky van Wolfswinkel)
  15. Newcastle United (Hatem Ben Arfa)
  16. Sunderland (Jozy Altidore)
  17. Cardiff (Kim Bo-Kyung)
  18. Fulham (Dimitar Berbatov)
  19. Crystal Palace (Marouane Chamakh)
  20. Hull (Tom Huddlestone)

English Premier League Predictions 2011/2012

After subsisting on a meager diet of Copa America, U-20 and international friendly fare, I’m ready for the full English breakfast that starts this weekend. Well, not quite full. The Everton v Spurs match has already been called off in light of the yobbish rioting in London this week. It’s a shame for the country and a shame for the league, as those two clubs are perennial competitors for the “best of the rest” Champions League spot. Hopefully, David Moyes will use the extra week to get somebody new into the squad. With Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City and Moneyball at Liverpool, Everton might be fighting at the wrong half of the table this year.

Now that I’m living in Washington DC and have no television, I’ll likely be taking in most of my games at Fado’s pub in Chinatown. On one hand, I’ll miss the comfort and convenience of watching the game at home. On the other, I might find some folks willing to exchange a bit of banter about the games. For now, here are my predictions for the coming season for league order and most influential player, where I can look back with embarrassment in about 9 months.

  1. Chelsea (Drogba)
  2. Man Utd (Rooney)
  3. Arsenal (Gervinho)
  4. Man City (Kompany)
  5. Liverpool (Suarez)
  6. Tottenham (Defoe)
  7. Newcastle (Ben Arfa)
  8. Bolton (Davies)
  9. Everton (Cahill)
  10. Sunderland (Larsson)
  11. Stoke (Jones)
  12. Aston Villa (Agbonlahor)
  13. West Brom (Hargreaves)
  14. Fulham (Dembélé)
  15. Norwich (Naughton)
  16. Wigan (Rodellega)
  17. Wolves (Johnson)
  18. Blackburn  (Pedersen)
  19. Swansea (Sinclair)
  20. QPR (Taraabt)

FA Cup: Arsenal

League Cup: Manchester City

Champions League: Barcelona

Spain: Real Madrid

Italy: AC Milan

Germany: Bayern Munich

France: PSG

Premier League Predictions 2009 – 2010

It’s that exciting time of the year again when European football starts anew. As much as I like scouring the gossip rags for potential player transfers, it’s no substitute for the enjoyment I get watching the league unfold week by week. Sitting, from my perspective, on the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, I’m in the curious position of lacking a real reason to support a particular side.

When I was about 10, my father returned from a trip to England with a t-shirt, hot off the presses, commemorating an Eric Cantona-inspired league title for Manchester United. Delighted to be probably the first person in Connecticut to own that particular shirt, I became a Man United supporter then and there. The few snippets of Champions League football shown on American TV over the next few years solidified my allegiance. Oddly, the two television moments I remember are Lee Sharpe scoring with an outrageous backheel and Nicky Butt firing over the bar, the announcer declaring that it just wasn’t to be United’s night.

More advanced age saw me play a great deal of Championship Manager, particularly the 2001/2002 vintage. I naturally brought Manchester United plenty of glory, with new signings Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron basically unbeatable (more and less like real life). But I also became fascinated with the challenge and culture of the lower leagues, and soon established favorites in each of England’s professional divisions despite not being able to spot them on a map. The old Division 1 choice was Crewe Alexandra. In D2 it was Stoke City. In D3 it was Leyton Orient. And in the Conference, Farnborough.

At this point, I consider myself more a fan of the game than any particular team. Certainly I always find a reason to support one team over another during any given match, but I’d be delighted to see Everton, Aston Villa or even Fulham somehow win the league at the expense of my old favorite MUFC. This past spring, I attended the Man Utd v Liverpool match at Old Trafford, a 4-1 drubbing Manchester’s finest that was also my first live Premier League game. Needless to say, it was an incredible experience despite the scoreline, and I was left with the feeling that many Mancunians don’t appreciate how amazing it is to have one of the world’s best teams play in their city every fortnight.

And so I follow the action mostly via television and Internet. I’ve spent many a happy Saturday lounging on my couch with ale in hand and cat curled up on my chest. I feel I have as much right as anyone to make predictions for the coming season. And why not? It’s fun (even if my predictions from last year couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried). So without further ado, here’s how I think they’ll finish this season in the English Premier League, with each team’s key player in brackets.

  1. Chelsea [Frank Lampard]
  2. Liverpool [Steven Gerrard]
  3. Manchester United [Wayne Rooney]
  4. Arsenal [Andrei Arshavin]
  5. Tottenham [Luka Modric]
  6. Manchester City [Robinho]
  7. Everton [Tim Cahill]
  8. Aston Villa [Ashley Young]
  9. Sunderland [Darren Bent]
  10. West Ham [Dean Ashton]
  11. Fulham [Clint Dempsey]
  12. Blackburn [Nikola Kalinić]
  13. Wigan [Jason Scotland]
  14. Bolton [Kevin Davies]
  15. Stoke City [Rory Delap]
  16. Wolves [Michael Kightly]
  17. Hull City [Alvaro Negredo]
  18. Portsmouth [Niko Kranjčar]
  19. Birmingham City [Seb Larsson]
  20. Burnley [Chris Eagles]

Champions: Chelsea

FA Cup: Arsenal

League Cup: Manchester United

Champions League: Barcelona

Disagree? Of course you do. Feel free to submit your predictions in the comments.

Premier League Predictions 2008 – 2009

Another Premier League season is finally upon us after a terrific summer of Euro 2008 action. There’s also the more immediate prospect of the Olympic soccer tournament, which should feature a good number of young and old stars including Pato, Messi, Diego and Ronaldinho. Looking back at last season’s Premier League predictions, it could have been worse… just. I won’t congratulate myself for picking Man Utd to win, or Birmingham to go down. Unfortunately, that leaves me with nothing to congratulate myself for. So let’s just move on and get straight to this year’s predictions, in the same form as before. And as always, don’t keep your brilliant opinions to yourself.

Michael Essien

  1. Chelsea (Michael Essien)
  2. Manchester United (Rio Ferdinand)
  3. Arsenal (Cesc Fabregas)
  4. Liverpool (Robbie Keane)
  5. Portsmouth (Jermain Defoe)
  6. Tottenham (Luka Modric)
  7. Manchester City (Elano)
  8. Everton (Mikel Arteta)
  9. Aston Villa (Gabriel Agbonlahor)
  10. West Ham (Dean Ashton)
  11. Newcastle (Michael Owen)
  12. Fulham (Andrew Johnson)
  13. Sunderland (Kenwyne Jones)
  14. Bolton (Kevin Nolan)
  15. Blackburn (Roque Santa Cruz)
  16. Wigan (Paul Scharner)
  17. West Brom (Scott Carson)
  18. Middlesbrough (Alfonso Alves)
  19. Stoke City (Dave Kitson)
  20. Hull (George Boateng)

I’m pretty confident in these picks, although it’ll be close between Middlesbrough and West Brom for the final relegation spot. As for Blackburn, it depends how quickly they sack Paul Ince (reports indicate that he may not last until the first game). I’m most looking forward to seeing an expansive, new-look Spurs and a classic little-and-large partnership of Crouch and Defoe. My second team, Everton, look too threadbare to compete against deeper squads with deeper pockets and it’ll be business as usual for the top four teams. However, I think an unsettled Ronaldo, an ageing goalkeeper and the lack of genuine creativity in midfield will scupper Manchester United’s chances of defending their title. The underrated Michael Essien and a hungry Chelsea will do enough to reclaim the Premier League. Agree? Disagree?

Nations Not Fit for FIFA

A recent 4-4-2 magazine article about marginal nations banned from FIFA piqued my interest in some fascinating cultural enclaves. It’s hard to define or draw comparisons between these places/groups of people, but football appears to be a common thread. Combined with some fascinating geography, here are four of my favorite non-state footballing nations.

Basque
As non-FIFA teams go, the Basque football team is more internationally recognized than others. According to Phil Ball’s excellent book Morbo, the Basque Country of Spain and France (so named due to its border with the Bay of Biscay) has historically been a rich source of talent for professional Spanish teams. Even now, Atletic Bilbao has a strict policy of using only Basque players, and it’s possible to construct a very impressive team from among the Basques across the world, with Mikel Arteta and Xabi Alonso at the heart of its midfield. In general, Basques can be identified by their names, which contain more of certain letters like x, z and k than Spanish names. Here’s an example of the uniform and a formidable starting XI.
A sample Basque Starting XI

Sapmi
The Sapmi football team represents the Sami or Lapp people of northern Scandanavia. Players like Morten Gamst Pedersen and Sigurd Rushfeldt are Sami, and may play for the Sapmi national team after retiring from the Norwegian national side. Mostly a reindeer-herding people, the Sami were instrumental in organizing the Viva World Cup, which they will be hosting in 2008. They won the 2006 tournament in Occitania, scoring 42 goals in 3 games.
Sapmi Football Uniform

Occitania
Defined as the regions in France, Italy and Spain where the language of Occitanian is spoken, Occitania founded its football association in 1901. However, the Occitanian national side was only created in 2004. They hosted the inaugural Viva World Cup in 2006, and have played matches against Chechnya, Northern Cyprus and neighbors Monaco. Interestingly, Eric Cantona is elligible for the national side, while the Occitanian cross is the symbol of Toulouse FC.
Occitanian Flag

Tibet
The football-mad Tibetans have suffered under Chinese rule since they invaded the country in 1950. The international community’s failure to stand up for the Tibetans is reminiscient of tolerance for South Africa’s apartheid. As such, Tibet officially remains part of China and therefore has no chance of fielding its own FIFA-approved national team. A documentary called “The Forbidden Team” followed the selection, training and matches of Tibet’s first national game away against Greenland. China attempted to gazump the game by threatening to suspend trade with Denmark if it went ahead. However, the Danes allowed the game to be played and Tibet lost 4-1. Though they’ve still got no wins, every international match is a statement of independence from China. On the eve of the Tibetan selection tournament that was to determine who would represent the nation, Sonam Wangyal said:

“We are taught by our parents and everybody that you never pray for yourself, you pray for all beings in the world. All living things including the beings because that will include you. You’ll be uplifted with the beings. I just prayed that everybody gets selected.”